BCGEU highlights need for CO safety in meeting with Minister of Public Safety and Solicitor General, January 2020 - BCGEU

On January 31, 2020, your union – represented by Component 1 vice-president, Dean Purdy, BCGEU president, Stephanie Smith, and Component 1 executive first vice-chair Brandon Cox – met with Minister of Public Safety and Solicitor General, Mike Farnworth, as well as the assistant deputy minister (ADM) and provincial director of the Corrections Branch, Elenore Arend and Stephanie Macpherson.

During the meeting, your union once again raised issues of safety, recruitment and retention. The following is a summary of that discussion.

1. Prison Safety

Safety for our members was the main focus of the discussion. We explained to Minister Farnworth that violence in prisons remains the top issue for correctional officers (COs).

Prison violence, namely inmate-on-inmate violence, has the potential to cause severe physical injury and even be life-threatening to COs. We identified that cultural changes (lack of "jail code") and gang affiliations are the main drivers of increasing violence in correctional facilities. The ADM said she was prepared to share the employer's 2019 violent incident numbers with our union to help track incidents across the province.

We identified that inmate use of razors as weapons is increasing and is now the weapon of choice for inmates. We also pointed out that inmate access to microwaves in living units creates risk of their use of super-heated liquids as weapons. Despite being inmate-on-inmate in nature, we explained that these acts of violence are likely to spread to COs as have previous trends of prison violence.

We identified that, because inmates are moved throughout the province, province-wide OH&S standards and consistency are required. The provincial director noted that the issue of consistent OH&S solutions is on the radar of both a provincial risk assessment committee and WorkSafeBC.

2. Recruitment and Retention

The ADM acknowledged that wages affect retention.

Discussion was had about the ongoing development of the 40-hour work week and the benefit it could have on recruitment and retention issues. Minister Farnworth said that both he and his ministry are aware of the joint proposal and support the idea of an extended work week. Members have until February 24 to vote whether to accept an extended work week.

3. Mental Health

As a result of violence, mental health has become a serious problem for COs and their families.

We said we want to address the high number of COs currently off work with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and specifically the lack of profession-appropriate mental health services available to them. We explained that current Employee & Family Assistance Program (EFAP) services are highly inadequate for most types of mental health issues that arise in a correctional environment.

We shared that we have a proposal recommending that COs receive access to confidential psychological services in their region to discuss mental health issues either before they arise or as soon as possible thereafter. We noted that this type of service is normal in policing and fire services.

No one disputed that current EFAP provisions are inadequate for COs' needs and all agreed that earlier interventions are preferable to waiting until symptoms escalate. Minister Farnworth requested that our proposal be forwarded to him.

We also noted that lack of appropriate mental health support is a retention issue and that providing appropriate supports may keep COs in the profession. We also noted that our union is being proactive in training activists in First Aid to help them recognize symptoms of acute stress.

Discussion was also had around mental health and addiction services for inmates and how lack of these supports put both inmates and COs at risk of violence. The ADM declared this issue a high priority for her.

Overall, we feel that this meeting was positive and that the issues we raised were accepted as requiring continued attention. We will continue to keep you updated.

In solidarity,

Stephanie Smith

Dean Purdy
Vice President for Component 1

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