The union representing Nova Scotia’s correctional officers says “critical” understaffing at the provincial jail in Burnside has led to increased assaults on staff.
In a media release on Monday, the Nova Scotia Government and General Employees Union (NSGEU) said a Department of Justice recruitment strategy has failed, and staffing levels are “now the worst in the history” of the Central Nova Scotia Correctional Facility (CNSCF).
The union said this is putting correctional officers at risk.
“Staff are telling us that this is the worst staffing crisis they have seen in the 22 years that this facility has been in operation,” Hugh Gillis, NSGEU 1st vice president, said in the release.
The union said that late last week, there were only two correctional officers on two of the units where a minimum of five officers should be on each shift. The union also said assaults on the job have led to staff being put off work, leading to understaffing and creating “increasingly problematic and violent behaviour from offenders, who are frustrated due to extended lockdowns.”
This, the union wrote, has resulted in a further uptick in assaults on staff. It has also led to an increase in contraband coming into the facility because staff don’t have the time to conduct proper searches.
The union said these “critically short” staffing levels mean that staff are routinely forced to work additional hours after 12-hour shifts. It blames part of the problem on the province’s recruitment strategy, calling it a failure.
“Their sole-source training contract has not delivered results and simply does not adequately prepare new recruits for the realities of the work environment,” the release said.
‘This is a disaster’
The NSGEU said this has led to an “unacceptable situation” where correctional officers with six months of workplace experience are expected to train new recruits as senior staff leave the field entirely.
“This is a disaster,” Gillis said. “Our (correctional officers) are doing everything they can to keep this facility operational, but they need immediate help.”
The union is calling for more frontline staff and managers on the ground to help with operational requirements.
“This means that the senior correctional management team who works off-site must give management and staff at the facility the resources and authority they need to recruit, retain staff, and run a safe facility,” the union said.
‘Facing staffing challenges’
In an emailed statement to the Halifax Examiner on Monday evening, Department of Justice spokesperson Deborah Bayer said the department “remains focused on ensuring the safety and security of those in custody and our staff.”
Bayer said that like many other employers, correctional services is facing staffing challenges, and the department is developing a multi-faceted strategy to address recruitment and retention efforts. Those efforts include reaching out to jurisdictions across the country to identify best practices and innovative solutions.
In addition, Bayer said the department is consulting with other local law enforcement and public safety organizations within the province.
“Recruitment takes time and that’s why Correctional Services continues to reach out to our communities and networks to generate interest in these important positions,” Bayer wrote, adding that the department recently participated in community career fairs in both Sydney and Halifax.
“We have already extended the length of the job postings so interested and qualified candidates have more time to apply. 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.”
Although currently unable to provide a number indicating how many correctional staff have been assaulted, Bayer said the department is reviewing its records and will report back.