THUNDER BAY -- Ontario correctional officers are gearing up for a possible work stoppage more than six months before their collective bargaining agreement expires.
Local workers held a rally in front of the Thunder Bay District Jail on MacDougall Street Monday morning, in conjunction with similar demonstrations at other facilities ranging north from Barrie.
Michael Lundy, OPSEU Local 737 president and correctional officer at the district jail, said the union is receiving strong signals from the Ministry of Community Safety and Correctional Services that the process of negotiating a new contract might turn into a fight.
Lundy believes renovations that began earlier this year are meant to house the managers who will be running the jail in the event of a labour dispute.
“We haven’t even said what we want. They’re drawing a line in the sand and saying there’s going to be a work stoppage,” Lundy said. “My belief is they’re trying to intimidate and scare the members into thinking they’re going to lock us out.”
The union hasn’t established their negotiating team and declared what they be seeking from the agreement.
Despite that, local correctional officers have a list of issues they would like to see addressed.
Shawn Bradshaw, who is a correctional officer at the Thunder Bay Correctional Centre and OPSEU Local 708 president, said cuts to staffing have put the safety of all involved at risk.
He said prior to 20 graduates of the Ontario Correctional Services College earlier this year hired into four northern sites, no new officers had been hired since 2010.
“Without the staffing complement we’re vulnerable,” Bradshaw said.
“Every day we’re vulnerable. We’ve run three or four people short at the Thunder Bay Correctional Centre which puts everybody in danger, not just the staff but other inmates.”
The danger is becoming evident in statistics across the province.
Lundy said across Ontario an average of two correctional officers per day are assaulted by inmates and altercations between inmates have been on the rise.
“It’s a scary situation, especially when you’re understaffed,” he said.
Compounding matters, both Lundy and Bradshaw said, are antiquated facilities that are no longer useful and are limiting what can be done to rehabilitate the prisoners.
Programs, such as addiction management and mental health support, are not offered due to a lack of space and personnel.
Lundy the lack of programs undermines the mission of what should be happening in the facilities.
“In my opinion the term corrections is to fix a mistake,” Lundy said. “Here, we lock them inside with no programs or chance to fix them and put them out on our streets with probation and parole and take away all the tools probation and parole can actually have to community manage these guys.”
Mayor Keith Hobbs made an appearance at the rally and pledged to advocate for improvements to the system.
He recommended the nearly 100-year-old district jail to be dismantled and for supportive programs to be implemented in a modern facility.
“The City of Thunder Bay is looking at root causes of crime and there are insufficient programs in the jails to address those root causes,” Hobbs said.
“I think the province should get in line with the city and look at those root causes and maybe we won’t have the overcrowding in the jails.”