For the past couple months the Lindsay Advocate has been speaking to employees and former employees of Lindsay’s Central East Correctional Centre. Citing concern for their jobs (and privacy issues) all interviewees requested anonymity. We also spoke on the record to representatives of the union and to Ontario’s Solicitor General.
“We call them broken toys.”
“They are broken. Mentally broken. Some are suicidal, from a career in corrections,” says one retired correctional officer (CO), describing some of his former co-workers.
As an outsider with no experience with the prison system, I had of course expected stories from COs involving mental health. But I thought I would hear stories of trauma that come with having a job that involves providing custody and control for criminals (or those suspected of criminality): the ‘crazy stories’ of fights, drugs, rape and murder. What shocked me was that the more I spoke to COs (current and retired) the more I learned that the stress these people described was more often about policy, procedure and management then it was about the salacious things I had imagined.
To be clear, this is not a job that everyone would find normal. “Our job is to get spit on and attacked,” said one retired CO.
But overwhelmingly, those interviewed cited management and administration as one of the chief stressors of the job. It’s a situation that Chris Butsch, President of OPSEU Local 368 says is getting worse over time.
“Working conditions are at an all time low,” he says.
The problem it seems is that the way prisons are run has changed dramatically over the years. In the past, COs ran the ‘floors.’ They were in charge of the inmates. As one retiree described, “back in the day, when an inmate was misbehaving I would just turn off his TV. And my supervisor would have my back. Now, guards are powerless. And the inmates know it.”
“We can handle the inmates when we work together as a team,” says another CO. “It’s the management and the impossible things they ask from us that is the real problem.”
Butsch describes a system where policy comes down from “on high.” It’s created in a vacuum with no considerations for the mechanics and realities of life inside a prison. “Front-line staff know how to do the job,” says Butsch but we are ‘talked over’ and our suggestions are often ignored. Butsch gives the example of a directive to create a new segregation unit. The policy arrives without the operational detail of how this will work — the myriad of operational details that must be perfect if they are to safely provide custody and control for inmates and staff alike.
For its part, the Ministry says that it is trying to reform the system.
“The government has been clear in its commitment to supporting correctional services across this province. Progress has been made across the correctional system by implementing new ways for staff to manage inmates more effectively through better housing options, redefining segregation and better mental health screening and assessment tools. New measures provide better oversight and support more effective management of inmates, who for their own safety or the safety of others, must be housed apart from others,” said Andrew Morrison, media relations at the Solicitor General.
Butsch for his part, is skeptical. Even the best policy, without the proper resources to implement it, is useless and possibly harmful. Butsch cites the example of staff training. All COs have a formidable list of mandatory training in things like defensive tactics, verbal diffusion, high-risk takedowns. “At one point in the recent past we were at 9 per cent compliance with training. The situation has improved since then, but there are still issues of resources.”
Drugs and gangs are obviously another issue of concern in our prisons. And the drug situation has gotten worse, as it has in general society, because of drugs like fentanyl and carfentanyl. As one retiree said, “Way back, I didn’t really do much about pot. Pot kind of mellowed everything out. But when fentanyl came along, the problems got way more serious.” When asked about gangs specifically, Morrison at the Ministry said that “All correctional officers receive comprehensive training to do their jobs effectively. Correctional officers are trained in recognizing signs of gang affiliations and activities, and the ministry has information sharing protocols in place with police services.”
But as Butsch says, “Take the drugs and gang situation. Is it worse in the prison because society is just getting worse? Or is it worse because we don’t have a dedicated, trained staff on the body scanners that were installed? You will have someone placed on that machine who normally never uses it. How does that stop drugs?”
Butsch claims that due to resources, policy doesn’t always get followed, citing searches as an example. “It is policy that every cell has to be searched at least once a month. There are some in the facility that have not been searched in two months because the search team had to be seconded to deal with staff shortages rather than than the employer hiring the right amount of people to get the job done. That’s a safety issue for our members.”
It is that inconsistency that causes real stress for staff, claims Butsch. “We have to follow all of this policy perfectly, but only when it is convenient for a government. Meanwhile, we have seen investigations of staff increase dramatically. We have more investigations than I have ever seen before. And a lot of these could be talked out in a manager’s office. I have seen staff suspended for the way they delivered a tray of food or take off the lid to the meal,” adds Butsch.
As more than one staff member described it to me: “You are in constant fear of losing your job.” Another CO described the effect of working in this environment, one that might be described as toxic for some employees: “It’s hard to describe. Before I did this job I was in a better frame of mind. Feelings of paranoia… that sense that management is out to get me. I never have faith that people mean what they say.”
This sense of feeling unsupported by management only compounds a difficult job. Staff see traumatic events, death, fights, blood and all too often get bit or scratched or even stabbed.
The result is a workforce that is experiencing a staggering amount of employees on stress-related leave. Almost 25 per cent of the CO compliment (which includes 253 full-time COs and 170 part-time or casual workers) is on some sort of stress leave. There are over 100 employees on WSIB stress-related leave. That accounts for 10 per cent of the staff from all 25 Ontario correctional facilities who are on such leave.
Put another way, over 100 front-line workers and managers from our community are on stress leave from just one institution.
And this, in part, leads to staff shortages, which in turn cause ‘lock-downs’ where inmates are confined, usually two to a cell. According to Morrison the Lindsay facility has been locked down 69 times so far in 2019 as a result of staff shortages. Lock-downs disrupt the normal operations of the jail and can increase the overall tension in the facility – a situation that only worsens the overall safety for staff.
In 2016 the Ontario Supreme Court ruled in Ogiamien v. Ontario that the conditions of detention during lock-downs are much like solitary confinement. The ruling stated that the practice was an “an outrage to the standards of decency,” violating the ‘cruel and unusual punishments’ section of the Constitution. Hardliners might be fine with such treatment of criminals. But that fact remains that these people eventually return to our society. Not to mention that someone in a lock-down might not have been convicted of a crime (they could be awaiting trial and are therefore presumed innocent.)
Union leaders have long declared that such lock-downs affect front-line staff negatively as well, because when inmates reach a breaking point (being denied exercise, showers, or the ability to call their family or lawyer for days) this can create potentially dangerous situations for staff.
The Ministry, according to Anderson, acknowledges the toll of PTSD on front-line workers: “Police officers, correctional officers, and others that work on the front lines protecting our communities face demanding challenges that may impact on their mental health or emotional wellbeing. Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is a significant risk to the health and well-being of people working in certain occupations and who regularly face, or are affected by, traumatic situations. Staff that are directly involved in any critical event at work are offered the Critical Incident Stress Management [CISM] program, which utilizes trained peer volunteers to provide education about managing critical incident stress, and how to minimize the effects and reduce the potential stress-related reactions.”
Anderson adds that, “under provincial legislation, there is a presumption that PTSD diagnosed in first responders is work-related. The presumption allows for faster access to Workplace Safety and Insurance Board (WSIB) benefits, resources and timely treatment.”
Butsch describes a different situation on the ground, however, reporting that often management will report to WSIB that an event is ‘under investigation’ which can deny an employee WSIB benefits for months, causing even more stress and possible financial hardship. He also claims that he can’t remember the last time he saw the CISM team deployed. A retired worker explained that after a traumatic incident they sent a young administration person who had recently taken a two-week course on dealing with trauma in the workplace. “No offence to that person, but I needed someone who knew my reality and had more experience.”
To be certain, there are certain societal factors that make this situation even more complicated. Some current employees cited the current state of the justice system as part of the problem, describing the pendulum swing of the rights of the accused. “What kind of system do we have where someone can spit on me — a correctional officer — in the face, and yet there are absolutely no consequences,” she asks, rhetorically.
Another employee cited the loss of psychiatric beds in the province since the cuts under former Premier Mike Harris, resulting in the criminalization of mental illness. One retired worker recalled dealing with an 80-year-old inmate who would wake up every morning with his blankets bundled, holding this as if it was a baby. It seems that he had dementia-related violence in the assisted-living home he was in and there was just no where else to go.
Another retired employee cited the physical structure of the prison itself. The facility, designed to house approximately 1,100 inmates was based on a design from a southern-US prison firm. The physical design, in the opinion of this former employee, leads not only to poor and inconsistent air quality but also to a reduced ability to supervise inmates.
“In the old style of prison, we knew what everyone was doing. We had control. We had regular contact. That made it safer for everyone. This [the Lindsay super jail] is just designed to warehouse humans,” he says.
Butsch says that for any occupational danger his members face, they constantly have to fight for the protective gear or processes to deal with the danger. “We had to fight for protective equipment to deal with fentanyl. That should never have required a fight. Our job can be dangerous. But we have to fight for every protection.”
So why isn’t the state of corrections and the working conditions of correction employees a huge issue in our community, or provincially or nationally? Many people I talked to cited a societal indifference to COs. It is front-line work, but it happens “behind the walls” — outside the experience and view of the community. Culturally, prison guards are often presented as largely negative figures. As Butsch jokes, “we are the poor cousins of first responders.” There is also a perception held by some that they are merely overpaid government workers. In fact there was a time when COs had wage parity with the OPP, but that situation has long passed.
One retiree noted that unlike other First Responders, there isn’t a lot of community outreach by correction workers — unlike, say, the police and fire services. However given, the apparent state of working conditions in Corrections, such outreach may be premature. When I asked several people if they would recommend working as a CO to a child they replied “absolutely not” or “never in a million years.”
Something must be done, but what? Butsch has one modest proposal: have a full-time psychologist on staff for correction workers to try to address the epidemic of stress-related leave and PTSD. As Butsch asks, “How do we stop it?”
As he sadly concludes, “people are hurting.” And they are our people. Our neighbours who are hurting from doing a job that serves us.”