Jails dangerous, neglected – correctional officers

North Bay Nugget

An aging facility, inadequate mental health training are serious problems in North Bay – union

A correctional officer was held hostage two weeks ago by an inmate at North Bay Jail, where employees are complaining about the lack of mental health training and an aging infrastructure. Nugget File Photo

A hostage-taking incident at the North Bay Jail about two weeks ago could have ended much worse than it did, a North Bay correctional officer says.

The incident ended after about 15 minutes, but “we’re just lucky the other inmates didn’t get involved this time,” Jim Mitchell says.

“We’re seeing more incidents like this,” says Mitchell, insisting the situation inside is getting worse.

But North Bay isn’t alone in its struggles and concerns.

Ontario Public Sector Employees Union (OPSEU) highlighted some of the problems in the province’s jail system during a media conference last week.

Corrections division union leader Chris Jackel said parole and probation officers carry the largest client workload in the country, and at least 300 new officers should be hired for that area alone.

“Nobody should buy the government’s mantra that Ontario’s streets are safer than ever,” Jackel said. “It’s preposterous.”

Jackel described a stress-filled and dangerous working environment for correctional officers, and estimated about 20 per cent of that workforce is off sick or injured at any given time.

The North Bay Jail lost four beds because more room is needed to keep vulnerable inmates safe, according to Mitchell, who also serves as president of OPSEU Local 616.

The jail, on Trout Lake Road, can house 118 inmates. It’s at capacity or close to it most of the time.

“Once the psych hospital closed in the city, we saw a lot more mental health inmates,” Mitchell says. “The problem is smaller jails, like North Bay, Thunder Bay and Sudbury, don’t have the room or space for mental health patients.

“They come to jail and because of their mannerisms they have to get segregated or else they will get beat up. Now they’re alone in a cell and not getting the mental health treatment they need.”

In addition to the mental health concerns, Mitchell says, fentanyl is “another beast entirely.

“We do get some inmates trying to sneak it in and have caught it,” Mitchell says. “We have body scanners, which are a great tool, but they only pick up so much.”

And then there’s the condition of the jail, which was built in the late 1920s.

“We joke around that if there’s one more hole in the main floor the second floor will be coming down. It’s outlived its usefulness.”

There are times when the jail is so full, inmates have no choice but to sleep on the floor.

“There’s no such thing as saying we have no vacancy. We have to deal with what we’ve got. However, the mental health problems we’re seeing is certainly the game changer,” Mitchell says.

“We’ve received little to no training for mental health. We can spot it, but how do we deal with it? We’ve called for more training and all studies point to the need for more training. However, it’s fallen on deaf ears.”

OPSEU president Warren ‘Smokey’ Thomas says he wants to tour some troubled jails with Premier Doug Ford.

Thomas says the system needs an injection of about $1 billion in new or retrofitted jails, better training and more correctional officers.

Mitchell says there has been repeated reports detailing what’s wrong with the province’s correctional institutions.

“The reports get shelved because it’s going to cost the province money to fix the problems. Nobody wants to give money to corrections. Health care or education seem to be the priority.”

Mitchell says the stereotype still exists that the North Bay Jail is a holding tank for those who commit petty crimes.

“We don’t see those little crimes anymore. They’ve been replaced by inmates who have been charged with violent crimes and drug offences.”

Corrections Minister Sylvia Jones says she is aware of the concerns raised and wants a safe environment for correctional officers and the public.

“We’ve already initiated some proactive programs that are improving their health and wellness on the mental health side.”

Jones says she hopes the April 11 provincial budget will include funds for new jails.

With files from Antonella Artuso, Postmedia

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