‘Breaking point:’ Staffing at Halifax-area jail the worst in its history, union says

14 Aug 2023 | Canada | 74 |
‘Breaking point:’ Staffing at Halifax-area jail the worst in its history, union says

The union representing correctional officers at the Central Nova Scotia Correctional Facility in the Halifax Regional Municipality says staffing levels are now at the worst in the jail’s history, putting workers and inmates at risk.

The Dartmouth, N.S. facility, also known as the Burnside Jail, is “critically understaffed” and there’s been an increase in assaults on staff and contraband entering the facility as a result, according to Hugh Gillis, vice-president of the Nova Scotia Government Employees Union (NSGEU.)

“We need a more robust recruitment strategy. We need to get more applicants in, we need more training spaces opened up, we need more staff working at the Burnside Jail,” he said in an interview on Monday.

Gillis said last week, there were only two correctional officers on hand in the north and west living units, when there are supposed to be five.

He said workers have reached a “breaking point.”

“Staff are stressed before they even go to work in the morning because they know there’s not enough staff around,” he said.

“When they do go to work for a 12-hour shift, they’re routinely being held back for an additional four hours. So, very hard on work-life balance.”

The working conditions have caused some to quit, leading to a “revolving door” of staff, said Gillis.

“We’ve had people seriously injured, that will be off the job, potentially permanently,” he said. “It’s simply not a safe place for our staff to be working under the current circumstances.”

He said the province’s current recruitment strategy has been “a failure” and their training program does not adequately prepare new recruits for the volatile work environment.

Gillis said more front-line staff and managers are desperately needed to help run the facility.

In a statement, Deborah Baker, a spokesperson for the Department of Justice, said the province is “focused on ensuring the safety and security of those in custody and our staff.

The department declined Global News’ request for an interview.

“Correctional Services, like other employers, is facing staffing challenges. Our recruitment and retention efforts are ongoing,”  she said in the statement.

“We are developing a multi-faceted strategy to address recruitment and retention efforts for correctional officers. This includes reaching out to jurisdictions across the country to identify best practices and innovative solutions that we can bring to Nova Scotia. Locally, we are consulting with other law enforcement and public safety organizations within the province.”

Baker also said Correctional Services are reaching out to communities to “generate interest” in the positions, and have hosted career fairs and extended the length of job postings.

“Retention is also key, and we are having ongoing discussions within government about what we can do to better support and retain our existing employees,” she said.

The staffing shortages are also causing problems for inmates, who are becoming frustrated due to extended lockdowns.

In a series of complaints brought before the Nova Scotia Supreme Court, inmates spoke of being locked in their cells for extended periods, sometimes 23 hours a day, because of staff shortages at the facility.

At least eight complaints — known as habeas corpus applications, in which a judge assesses the conditions of a person’s confinement — were made between April and late July.

In one such complaint, inmate Mark Keenan said he was regularly locked in his cell at the jail for more than 22 hours a day.

Justice Joshua Arnold said in a June 19 ruling that the staffing shortage is a “significant problem” at the facility.

“As a result, the inmates have been subject, off and on, to rotational lockdowns for months,” he said. “Whether on a general population range or on a protective custody range, because of the chronic staffing shortages, all inmates are subject to close confinement for significant periods of time.”

Inmate-on-inmate intimidation and violence, as well as inmate attacks on staff, “leads to more lockdowns and more staffing shortages,” the judge wrote.

A habeas corpus application is one of the few avenues inmates have if they feel their rights are violated — however, courts have consistently ruled that lockdowns triggered by a lack of staff cannot be addressed via that route, even if some judges arrive at that conclusion with reluctance.

“I simply cannot provide a remedy to Mr. Keenan under the writ of habeas corpus,” Arnold wrote. “Mark Keenan’s habeas corpus application is (reluctantly) denied.”

Thomas Downey, another inmate, spoke in his habeas corpus application of his struggles with physical and mental health. He said that because of the lockdowns, he can’t exercise, shower, contact a doctor, or speak with his lawyer or family.

In her June 26 decision for Thomas Downey’s application, Justice Christa Brothers said the court has no power to order the government to hire and retain more staff.

But, she said, “if creative and effective measures to hire and retain staff are not pursued, there may come a day when, in a suitable procedural context, the court can provide some form of remedy.”

Gillis said the comments from these judges show that something needs to be done.

“It’s pretty bad when the judges in Nova Scotia are speaking out about the staffing shortages in Burnside, so it really, really, truly needs to be addressed,” he said.

— with files from Megan King and The Canadian Press

by Global News