A long brick building with red roof is seen in the distance across a field of yellowish green grass and a few stubby shrubs.
The Central Nova Scotia Correctional Facility. Credit: Halifax Examiner

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.

Yvette d’Entremont is a bilingual (English/French) journalist and editor who enjoys covering health, science, research, and education.

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  1. If we are going to have to keep some of the population in jails for a time then the facilities need to be staffed accordingly. With proper training and pay. If people leave their job for whatever reason they must be replaced. Thee needs to be a constant supply of workers through training programs. It’s a hard job that needs proper compensation in order to retain and attract staff.

  2. It would be helpful to add some context: how many prisoners are currently being held at Burnside and how does that compare to past levels? How many are in pre-trial detention (not yet convicted of a crime)? How many are in for nonviolent offences, where they and the rest of society may be better served by alternative programs to incarceration? The ratio of prisoners to jailers being too large can be fixed by decreasing the number of prisoners as well as by increasing the number of jailers, after all.

    Another piece of the picture that would be harder to find but quite useful would be investigating why people aren’t interested in working as corrections officers. My vague impression is that the pay and benefits are above Nova Scotia’s median income and thus likely not what is dissuading applicants, but I don’t actually know what the pay rate is, so I may well be wrong in that assumption. The working conditions sound quite bad, of course, so that’s likely an issue. I can also see other potential issues being that the inhumane conditions at Burnside in particular clash with most people’s values, or perhaps that incarceration in general is becoming something that people are less comfortable directly supporting?