The president of the Union of Northern Workers is sounding an alarm over the safety of corrections officers at North Slave Correctional Centre.


Corrections officers at the North Slave Correctional Complex say their safety is being compromised by low staffing levels at the jail. That is according to their union president Todd Parsons. The concerns come on the heels of a letter-writing campaign by inmates who also complained about the way the facility is being run. John McFadden/NNSL photo

Todd Parsons says he’s been meeting with guards at the jail, who are members of the Union of Northern Workers, to hear their concerns. He warns worker safety is jeopardized by layoffs and what he says are unacceptably low staffing levels at the jail.

According to Parsons, the facility sometimes operates with only five corrections officers to oversee, at times, more than 150 inmates.

“They don’t have enough staff to work safely without concerns about incidents,” he said, adding the union has been working with corrections for “many months” to resolve staffing issues. “The union has filed a grievance in relation to the health and safety of our members working at the centre.”

According to assistant director of facility operations, corrections, Blair VanMetre, and as far as he knows, the Department of Justice has long had a positive working relationship with the union.

“Which is why recent media comments attributed to the UNW executive are surprising,” he stated.

Aside from low staff levels, Parsons said jail guards are being told to perform duties that are outside the realm of their usual jobs. For example, he said, the jail currently doesn’t have a recreation director, so guards have been ordered to perform those duties. Parsons said that means corrections officers now walk inmates to the gym and that’s about it. There is no organized physical activity program, since officers have not received any fitness program training.

Martin Goldney, deputy minister of Justice, said having corrections officers take up the recreation director’s role improves the relationship between guards and inmates.

Parsons said guards are also being assigned extra duties that include picking up medications for inmates, taking inmates to the hospital and transporting them to different locations.

Not only is the jail understaffed, but Parsons says mandatory overtime is forcing some officers to work 16 hours a day, sometimes for seven days in a row.

He said jail management claims incidents of violence at the jail are on a downward trend, but some corrections officers have told him there continues to be violent incidents.

“People are placed at risk when they don’t have the supports they need,” he said.

All of these concerns come on the heels of a letter writing campaign last month by about 80 inmates who wrote about their specific concerns, such as a lack of access to education and recreational programming.

Another common theme in the letters was that the outdoor recreational area has been closed off since inmate Denecho King escaped from the jail last August. The area has remained off limits while the Department of Justice revamps fencing to improve security. More than a year after King’s escape, the fence is still not completed.

In response to these concerns, Robert Riches, director of corrections for the Department of Justice stated in an e-mail that department officials and corrections staff meet regularly to discuss concerns.

“Additionally, any staff member who has safety concerns is encouraged to bring these forward to their supervisor or the warden … or myself and senior management of the Department of Justice,” he said.

Riches said he has responded to each inmate letter to explain how programs and services work at the jail. He did not state whether any changes are in the works in terms of the facility’s programming. He said access to the whole yard will return once a new fence is completed.

According Justice Minister Louis Sebert in an Oct. 4 response to Yellowknife Centre MLA Julie Green’s question about the status of the fence, the project was expected to be completed by mid-October.

Department of Justice spokesperson Sue Glowach redirected News/North to legislative assembly Hansard in response to a request for an updated timeline for the fence project.

 

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