Ontario's jail workers inked a deal with the province in January, narrowly averting a strike — and ensuring one won’t happen in the future.
As part of the new agreement with the Ontario Public Service Employees Union (OPSEU), which represents about 6,000 correctional workers, wage increases will be determined by arbitration, in the same manner as police or other essential service staff.
As well, going forward, the correctional bargaining unit of OPSEU will have its own separate agreement.
Any disputes would also be settled by a third-party arbitrator, revoking employees’ right to strike, which was something of a victory for the union.
“It’s been a huge issue for our folks, it’s been a tough fight and we’re finally there. This deal satisfies the strong desire of our members to have their wages set at arbitration,” said Tom O’Neill, chair of OPSEU’s correctional bargaining unit.
The collective agreement mimics that of police or emergency workers and effectively gives Ontario’s prison staff an essential service designation.
“Front-line correctional staff are the first responders who deal with violence, trauma and tragedy in the normal course of our work, and we intend to be recognized for the vital service we provide in keeping Ontarians safe,” he said.
Yasir Naqvi, minister of community safety and correctional services, echoed that sentiment, saying the front-line workers should have an essential services designation based on the type of work they do.
With the agreement, the ministry is now able to move forward with important changes with the help of the union and a positive labour relationship, he said.
“One of the key things I learned during the entire year we were negotiating with our partners is that the status quo really could not continue,” said Naqvi.
“We need to ensure we are putting more focus on rehabilitation and reintegration services so that we deal with capacity issues and ensure more for the public’s safety.”
Those changes could include rehab and transitional programs, such as halfway houses, said Naqvi, adding the project is a significant undertaking that will also address mental health concerns.
“We’re looking at better mental health supports for inmates, better assessments of what their mental health needs may be and then providing that support, such as hiring mental health nurses and training correctional officers on mental health issues,” he said.
Staffing levels in Ontario’s prison system have long been a point of contention for OPSEU, which said shortages have put both inmate and employee safety in jeopardy.
About 800 more officers would be needed to adequately fill the void, according to the union.
“We’re not able to run service at full steam because of staffing shortages,” said O’Neill.
“Our probation and parole officers have the highest caseloads in the country.”
Since 2013, the Ministry of Community Safety and Correctional Services has ramped up its hiring efforts and about 570 officers have joined the ranks.
That includes a class of 144 correctional officers who were recruited in the days following ratification of the collective agreement — the largest class the province has trained thus far, said Naqvi.
And the ministry will continue with similar numbers over the next few years to ensure there are enough staff members to implement his vision for the system’s transformation.
Changes welcomed in court
Lawyers had reported difficulty when attempting to access clients at the Toronto South Detention Centre (the country’s second-largest prison), which may have had something to do with a lack of staff, according to Anthony Moustacalis, president of the Criminal Lawyers’ Association. With an essential services designation and an agreement in place, better enforcement is the likely outcome.
“There are several essential services in modern societies, one of which is the prison system, and that makes sense because it’s an adjunct to the court system, and any sort of functioning democracy requires an effective court administration — which includes getting to and from the courthouse in a timely manner, and making sure prisoners are accessible,” he said.
Naqvi’s proposed reforms bring to light many concerns in the prison population, said Moustacalis, about 80 per cent of which deal with some combination of mental health, addiction, drug or substance abuse problems, and about 30 per cent of which deal strictly with mental health issues.
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