THUNDER BAY -- Conditions in local prisons are deplorable and inhumane, say some of the corrections officers working in them.
OPSEU Local 737 president Michael Lundy, who represents guards at the Thunder Bay Jail, and Local 708 president Shawn Bradshaw representing the Thunder Bay Corrections Centre say overcrowding, understaffing and aging infrastructure are all contributing to inmates being denied basic rights.
It's part of a systemic problem province-wide OPSEU says, which is why it's calling for a public inquiry.
"To say it's failing would be an understatement," Bradshaw said. "It's absolutely deplorable."
Inmates are lucky if they head out to the yard once or twice a week, even though it's supposed to be every day. Telephone calls, visits or shaving are also minimal because there isn't enough staff. Sometimes three inmates are sleeping in a space that's smaller than a car due to overcrowding.
"They're expected to sleep with their head next to a toilet. These are the reasons the violence is increasing in our institutions. We're overcrowded; we're understaffed," Bradshaw said.
With no additional training, officers are expected to deal with substance abuse, mental health, gang activity and other types of inmates without any segregation in the population.
Lundy estimates up to 60 per cent of the population at the Thunder Bay Jail has a mental illness. Years ago there were other facilities like the Lakehead Psychiatric Hospital to handle those people. Now they're just incarcerated.
"The facilities that we have right now aren't prepared for the new type of inmate that we have and the numbers," he said.
If someone's assaulted they might be treated and go right back into the same small space with the people who assaulted them Lundy said.
Lack of programming is also a major issue. Bradshaw said he and other officers call it a "boomerang effect."
A person will come into the jail angry, serve their time with little to no rehabilitation programs and head back out to the street. Bradshaw estimates 90 per cent of the inmates he sees has an addiction issue.
"While they're in custody they need the tools to improve education to improve their chances of success when they hit the street again," he said.
The corrections contract expires Dec. 31 but Lundy and Bradshaw insist the call for a public inquiry is not a bargaining tool.
"If they settled our contract tomorrow we'd still want this inquiry," Bradshaw said.
They credit support staff and even management for doing what they can in the system. People need to know where its money is going and how bad the system is failing a population that sometimes gets little empathy from the general public.
"Inmates are often forgotten people," Bradshaw said.
The Ministry of Community Safety and Correctional Services could not be immediately reached for comment.