At the NWT’s jails, beleaguered officers document many problems
Publication of an internal document assessing problems at NWT jails is a first step toward improving standards, says the MLA whose district includes Yellowknife’s North Slave Correctional Complex.
Last month, an internal workplace assessment reported by the CBC revealed staff concerns at jails in Yellowknife, Fort Smith and Hay River. The minister responsible, RJ Simpson, has declined to be interviewed about any of the issues raised.
Caitlin Cleveland, the MLA for Kam Lake, told Cabin Radio many corrections officers living in her district have expressed health and safety concerns about the Yellowknife jail.
While Cleveland would not discuss specific details in the leaked report, she praised the NWT government’s commissioning of the workplace assessment, completed by an external consultant in November.
“It’s not every day you see a report come out that says: tell us what we’re doing wrong so we can make it better,” she said.
“The fact that they have gone out and commissioned this report … really is a turning point, I think, and a first step in being able to make their workplace better and to be able to put safety of corrections officers in the forefront.”
Cleveland wants Simpson to address the report both publicly and directly with front-line corrections workers. She intends to bring up the topic in the NWT’s Legislative Assembly, where MLAs will resume sitting on February 3.
“I think it’s really important that the GNWT do their due diligence in ensuring that staff, especially staff in high-stress environments, are equipped with the training they require and the resources they require to do their jobs properly,” she said.
Cleveland said her frequent conversations with Simpson about corrections gave her “confidence” he will address officers’ concerns.
“I like what I hear. I feel that he listens,” she said. “I like the direction of where our conversations are going and so I have faith that this minister wants to see change and wants to see it through.”
Cabinet communications staff declined requests for an interview with Simpson. They instead issued a written statement attributed to the minister.
“I, along with management, understand and acknowledge that there is a need to make improvements within the corrections workplace and are committed to closely examining the findings of this assessment,” the statement reads.
“From the start of this assessment, correction staff were told the process would be confidential and I respect that commitment and respect the need to allow management and staff the time to work together to make change happen.”
Sue Glowach, a spokesperson for the Department of Justice, said in another statement that management was reviewing the report to “fully understand the staff viewpoint and consider the issues they raised.”
“We know we have work to do and improvements need to be made in these areas. While this is not going to be a quick process, we are committed to make change happen,” she wrote.
‘Someone is going to get hurt’
Glowach said the department would not make the internal report public. Cabin Radio obtained a copy of a summary sent to corrections staff on November 30 that outlines serious concerns related to understaffing, inadequate training and policy enforcement, and a disconnect between senior management and staff.
The report’s findings are based on responses to a confidential survey from 162 employees – about half of the territory’s corrections staff – alongside one-on-one interviews with 98 staff.
“Many people interviewed spoke passionately about personal safety and their belief that the safety of staff and inmates was being compromised,” the report states.
A corrections officer at the North Slave Correctional Complex (or NSCC), who spoke to Cabin Radio on condition of anonymity for fear of losing their job, said safety is one of the biggest concerns – but that wasn’t always the case.
“There was other management when I first started there and safety, security was the ultimate. That was held in the highest regard,” they said. “Now it seems to be less of the priority.”
The officer said that while staff are regularly told not to speak to reporters and are reminded there could be legal consequences for doing so, they had chosen to speak out because “things have got to change.”
“This has been a long time with no change,” they said.
“If it keeps going as-is, someone is going to get hurt.”
Understaffing, burnout, high turnover
The report highlights understaffing as a key issue in the territory’s corrections service, particularly at NSCC.
Many employees said a lack of staff means officers can end up alone with inmates when they should not be, and sometimes emergency help is not available when needed.
“The prevailing view was that facility management always staffed at the minimum number, without consideration for increased work demands and short-notice absences which occurred daily,” the report states.
The corrections officer said NSCC had for several years often run below its minimum staffing capacity. They felt management did not want to pay for overtime or relief staff.
More: Read the full workplace assessment summary sent to staff
The report says staff are concerned that people in the corrections service’s northern recruitment training program are “being pushed through and graduated regardless of their performance” because of the “overwhelming need” for corrections officers.
Meanwhile, many worried that inadequate training means new employees aren’t prepared to work on the floor, adding there’s also a lack of refresher training.
The document further notes a high turnover rate in corrections, which many staff attributed to the current working environment, saying they are burnt out and looking for another job.
“They’ve already lost the majority of their skilled long-term staff,” the officer told Cabin Radio. “The turnover has been incredible in management. There’s managers now that are in their twenties that have been in the facility a couple of years and haven’t even seen half of the things that can happen.”
A ‘culture of blame’
According to the report, corrections officers don’t feel supported by management, who they see as more concerned about budgets than staff safety and well-being.
“Respect and trust in both leadership and facility management has been compromised. Staff do not feel consulted about their work, they do not feel listened to, and they do not feel valued,” the report states.
The officer described an “archaic” management style that did not properly address staff concerns.
“Inmates are unhappy, officers are unhappy, management is unhappy,” they said.
Staff in the report detailed a “culture of blame” at NSCC. When issues arise, they said, inmates are able to violate the chain of command and go directly to the warden. In these cases, officers said they felt “undermined” and management made no effort to hear their side of the story.
“There was a sense that the power dynamic had shifted and that inmates now hold more power in the facilities than front-line staff do,” the report concludes.
“A lot of the officers there are not feeling supported and definitely not feeling that their backs are being watched,” the corrections officer told Cabin Radio.
Changes to policies have placed more liability on officers, they said.
The report states staff are “overwhelmed” and “bombarded” by frequent changes to policies, about which they are not consulted and which they often don’t understand. This means many policies aren’t being followed, staff said, but neither they nor inmates are being held accountable when rules are broken.
Staff attributed the lack of supervision to an increase in managers’ workloads alongside inadequate training and skills.
“There’s been a lot of confusion,” the officer said. “It doesn’t instill a lot of confidence in the officers.”
‘They’ve cut everything to the bone’
Beyond issues that corrections officers face, the report also details a reduction in services for inmates.
Many staff said they felt recreational, addictions, domestic violence, anger management and educational programming were no longer a priority. They described the termination of programming focused on Indigenous culture and practices that connects inmates with the land, communities and Elders.
“This perceived shift in service approach with inmates has negatively impacted how some longer-serving staff feel about their work,” the report states.
The officer said the number of mental health supports for inmates has also been reduced. While corrections officers once helped inmates to improve their decision-making and life skills, they said their job description had changed to “basically turning keys” and monitoring inmates.
“We don’t interact as much, we don’t try to help them as much. We don’t have the staff to do it,” they said.
“They’ve cut everything to the bone.”
Tú Pham, an NWT criminal defence lawyer, told Cabin Radio the report “sadly echoes” what many of his clients have told him for years – that it’s hard to get “meaningful programming” in the territory.
“The reality is that almost all inmates will at some point be released back into society,” Pham wrote in an email.
“Without the ability to address the underlying causes of their criminal behaviour through meaningful programming, it should come as no surprise that many inmates end up quickly re-offending once released.”
Pham said it’s “particularly troubling” to hear about the lack of Indigneous programming.
“Decisions to cut back on programming aimed specifically at Aboriginal offenders reek of society’s willingness to give up on our Aboriginal population.”
In February last year, Canada’s correctional investigator said the overrepresentation of Indigenous people in federal prisons had “reached new historic heights.”
Data from the NWT’s Department of Justice showed that in a recent snapshot, all female inmates and 83 percent of male inmates in the territory were Indigenous.
Comparatively, just over half of the territory’s population is Indigenous.
An old boys’ club
Lastly, the NWT report details a sexist work culture in the corrections service that disadvantages female staff.
Staff referred to senior management and an exclusive group of employees at correctional facilities as “an old boys’ club” who influence leadership, share information exclusively among themselves, and exclude women.
“There were a number of people who felt that female staff were being held back from progressing in their career as they did not have the same opportunities as men within the division, as well as some reflection that this was getting better than it had been in the past,” the report states.
Many corrections officers complained about not being given a complete uniform and having to buy their own personal protective equipment. Female corrections officers, in particular, were given male uniforms that “clearly do not fit and are told to make it work.”
Female corrections officers were identified as being more at risk due to differential treatment when it came to emergency support. Several said they were subject to lewd verbal remarks and gestures from inmates.
In an interview with NNSL, Lisa Hann – who worked as a corrections officer at NSCC and was on duty when an inmate attacked and injured another officer in 2019 – said the incident made her feel unsafe and unsupported because she is a woman.
“When male officers take control of a situation, officers rally around to provide backup, but when I took charge, I noticed that officers make themselves scarce,” she told NNSL.
Hann did not return Cabin Radio’s request for comment.
This is not the first time problems have been documented in the territory’s corrections service.
A 2015 report from the Auditor General of Canada found “serious deficiencies” in case management, including inadequate programming and mental health services for inmates. That report also documented staffing, training and safety issues in the corrections service, concluding the Department of Justice was not meeting key requirements for the management of correctional facilities.
The NWT Department of Justice recently told Cabin Radio there has been “significant change” since the audit, including “shifts in philosophy” and policy changes. The department also noted a new territorial Corrections Act will come into force this spring.
The corrections officer, however, said they had seen little substantial improvement over the years – other than an improvement in communication over the past six months, due in large part to pressure from staff and news coverage of the 2019 assault on a corrections officer, including NNSL’s publication of video footage of the incident.
The officer said they believe things can “absolutely” change for the better. They hope the department takes the concerns highlighted in the workplace assessment seriously.
In a statement, Todd Parsons, president of the Union of Northern Workers – which represents NSCC staff – said the union “strongly encouraged” members to participate in the workplace assessment. He asked for the union’s inclusion in any decisions affecting employees.
“The UNW’s goal is always to achieve the best outcome for members experiencing workplace issues,” he wrote.
“We hope the employer will listen to their front-line staff and also work with them – and the union – to determine the best steps forward to resolving the issues that workers are facing.”
Kam Lake MLA Cleveland said corrections officers should be part of the process to make improvements.
“I think it would be really unfortunate if it were were dictated to them, rather than making them part of the process,” she said.
“I think it’s important that people are involved in making their workplace better.”