Workers on the frontlines of Saskatchewan correctional centres are facing increased violence, according to the union that represents them.
Two incidents this week – a disturbance at Saskatoon Correctional Centre and a bizarre custody escape in Prince Albert – have flared frustrations for the Saskatchewan Government and General Employees’ Union (SGEU).
“No programming, overcrowding, lack of training…is somebody going to have to die before the government takes these concerns seriously?” Bob Bymoen, SGEU president, said Friday.
On Wednesday, Braidy Chas Vermette, 28, escaped from custody. The remand inmate was being transported from the Prince Albert Correctional Centre to a local hospital when two armed, masked men approached the escorting workers.
The officers were bear maced, and Vermette escaped.
Bymoen said he has concerns about both incidents this week and overall officer safety.
Provincial corrections officers in Saskatchewan do not carry firearms. Ministry of Justice spokesperson Drew Wilby said some carry pepper spray and batons, however he could not confirm if the officers had these devices on them at the time of the escape.
When there’s a perceived safety risk, workers are able to ask for a Prince Albert Police escort, if one is available.
Both cases this week are under separate review by the Ministry of Justice. Wilby said he can’t speak to specifics on the Prince Albert incident; however, he said it’s being taken seriously.
“Looking at the use of a police escort, and what that looks like, will definitely be a part of this review,” Wilby said.
“If that determines if (police escorts) is something to be used more frequently, obviously we will look to make those changes to our policies and protocols.”
In a statement Friday, the Prince Albert Parkland Health Region (PAPHR) said no staff, physicians or patients were involved in the incident that occurred in the parking lot of Victoria Hospital.
PAPHR said it plans to meet with Prince Albert police and provincial corrections to discuss protocol changes for safety improvements at the hospital.
“Given the significant number of correctional facilities and the number of individuals from those facilities who are cared for at the hospital, it will be an important component of the Victoria Hospital’s redevelopment,” the statement read.
Change in attitude needed: union
While he’s not in a position to talk about procedures at provincial correctional centres, Bymoen said he’s calling on government to do a full audit on protocols and to take safety more seriously.
There have been four major disturbances at the Saskatoon Correctional Centre in the last year, and one at the Prince Albert Correctional Centre involving a fire which affected four staff and resulted in one worker seeking medical attention.
“What happened here is just more symptoms of a problem that’s become a cultural issue in correctional centres; the employer and the government don’t listen to the staff,” Bymoen said.
Bymoen said he’s seen some centres where gyms have been turned into dorms and where people have been held in rooms initially designed for private calls.
“The impact of that is more rioting, more dangerous situations being put in the centres.”
Additionally, Bymoen said mental health isn’t being addressed the facilities; workers are often denied vacations and relief is limited for workers.
The province, however, said it’s listening to frontline workers and discussing the very issues SGEU brought to the media.
“It’s taken us a bit by surprise in the sense that we do have regular meetings with union officials,” Wilby said, adding they’ve been in talks over both incidents this past week.
He said a number of changes have been implemented over the last few years to ensure worker safety at correctional centres; namely increasing the number of staff and expanding the number of beds in the system.