The NWT’s justice minister insisted he is committed to making improvements in the territory’s corrections service as one Yellowknife MLA pledged to hold him to that promise.
In December, a leaked report on NWT correctional facilities highlighted employees’ concerns about understaffing, inadequate training and policy enforcement, sexism, a disconnect between senior management and staff, and a lack of meaningful programming for inmates.
In the Legislative Assembly last week, RJ Simpson acknowledged the report and said his justice department, along with the Department of Finance and Union of Northern Workers, would make changes.
“The workplace assessment report will not be shelved and forgotten about,” Simpson said.
“The report laid bare issues across the corrections service, and we must confront those issues head-on. The Department of Justice will be held accountable for the response to the concerns raised by staff.”
Simpson said he would not be tabling the report in the legislature – even though it is publicly available – as corrections staff were told it would be kept confidential. The minister has refused interview requests on the topic.
“I want to thank and commend the staff who took the time to share their workplace experiences, both good and bad, with the consultants,” he said. “It shows they care, are passionate, and want to be involved in making improvements and constructive change.”
Simpson said improvements under way include revising and updating the Northern Recruitment Training Program, making sure staff receive recertification in a timely manner, and ensuring all staff have a complete uniform that fits properly.
According to Simpson, managers met with staff in December and a working group has been established with senior officials from the finance and justice departments and the union.
That group is tasked with developing and implementing an assessment and accountability plan and a staff communication plan. Simpson said those plans will be prepared by the end of the current sitting of the legislature and all of the initiatives will be implemented by 2024.
Kam Lake MLA Caitlin Cleveland, whose district includes the North Slave Correctional Complex, noted issues at the territory’s correctional facilities stretch back to at least 2004. In 2015, a report from the Auditor General of Canada found “serious deficiencies” in case management.
While ministers had pledged improvements for years, Cleveland said issues like understaffing and low morale persisted.
“Over the last two decades, the safety of staff at the North Slave Correctional Centre has been repeatedly raised as a concern by members of this House, and here we find ourselves again,” she said.
“The lip service to the public and staff has remained on point, giving corrections staff hope, but hope without real change just erodes trust even deeper, leaving morale even lower than when you started.”
Cleveland questioned what would be different this time around.
Simpson acknowledged this was “a very concerning situation with some history” and said Cleveland was “right to be skeptical.”
“Governments say lots of things, and sometimes they don’t happen. I don’t know if there is anything I could say that would assure me as a regular member,” the minister said.
“It has to be proven. We have to actually do the work. We have to come back on a regular basis and show that we’re doing the work, and that’s really the only way to prove ourselves.”
Simpson said, however, that this time the union would have more involvement, giving a “stronger voice” to front-line staff and forcing greater collaboration. He promised to keep the public updated on the issue.
Finance minister Caroline Wawzonek also said $123,000 had been set aside in the budget to “address rising costs for providing services for inmates at the North Slave Correctional Complex.”