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Warkworth Institution correctional staff stage picket over claims of understaffing, rising workplace violence, drug use

Guards at Warkworth institution say the federal prison is very unsafe and not a pretty scene. They claim it's overcrowded, understaffed and teeming with drug use by inmates.

Allegations of understaffing, rising drug use among inmates and workplace violence are some of the key issues correctional staff at Warkworth Institution highlighted during an informational picket on Wednesday morning.

Members of the Union of Canadian Correctional Officers (UCCO) held a short picket outside the medium-sized federal prison on County Road 29, about 60 kilometres southeast of Peterborough. The union, which represents more than 200 correctional officers, claims the prison is “severely understaffed” to the point that there is mandatory overtime resulting in burnout and stress-related injuries.

The union claims there are currently 570 inmates at the prison, which has a rated capacity of 537 inmates.

READ MORE: Death of inmate at Warkworth Institution under review by Correctional Service Canada

“People are forced into working overtime, and the hours that people are working are just not sustainable,” said local union president Rob Essex, a correctional officer. “This is leading to an unsafe working environment. We’re finding people are giving up a lot of their family time. Heading into the holiday season, a lot of people are finding anxiety that they won’t be able to find that work- and home-life balance.”

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In an email to Global News Peterborough, Correctional Service Canada (CSC) spokesperson Véronique Rioux did not address the specific staffing concerns at Warkworth Institution. She said officials and staff “regularly meet” to review staffing levels for all institutions to “ensure appropriate resources are available to manage operational requirements.”

Rob Essex, a correctional officer at Warkworth Institution.
Rob Essex, a correctional officer at Warkworth Institution. Dan Nyznik/Global News Peterborough

The union also claims there has been an increase in the number of drug overdoses inside the prison, mainly from the lethal opioids fentanyl and carfentanil. Essex claims officers have used naloxone to revive individuals on “a dozen occasions” this year.

He also claims there have been two inmate deaths this year, which the union believes are related to opioid use. CSC continues to investigate the deaths.

“Because of the size of fentanyl and carfentanil, it is very difficult to prevent getting into the institution,” Essex said. “The most concerning issue with this is that offenders who had drug use as a contributing factor — possibly 70 per cent — to their criminality continue their use and still have the same unmanageable habit when released. Therefore, [there is] no rehabilitation and, in turn, a potential threat to public safety.”

Rioux did not address the union’s allegations of rising drug use but stated CSC has a “number of measures” being implemented to provide a safe and secure work environment. Those measures include population management strategies and harm reduction measures, adding new search and surveillance technology and enhancing intelligence and information systems.

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“Prison violence is not tolerated and disciplinary action is taken, and criminal charges may be laid against offenders involved in violent incidents,” she stated.

Essex says staff are also concerned about rising violence at the prison. The union claims there have been 566 incidents deemed “acts of aggression,” 462 incidents related to drug or contraband consumption and 165 seizures of homemade alcohol this year. He says it’s all taking a physical and emotional toll on correctional officers.

“Individuals in the institution don’t want to be here so they constantly challenge rules, which over time, erodes away our wellness and emotional responses,” he said.

CSC did not comment on the specific allegations of workplace violence but emphasized that the safety and security of employees and the public is “a priority.”

“On a daily basis, our employees demonstrate their dedication and commitment during the stressful and potentially dangerous situations which can occur in a correctional environment,” Rioux stated. “We take mental health injuries very seriously, and a number of initiatives are in place to support staff, such as Employee Assistance Program, Critical Incident Stress Management (CISM), Return to Work and Duty to Accommodate. We actively encourage our employees to seek assistance in dealing with any personal or work-related problems that may affect their well-being.”

READ MORE: How Trevor died — Why prison offers a ‘golden opportunity’ to help solve the opioid crisis

Essex noted the union has been working without a contract, which expired more than a year ago. He says the picket was to show how multifaceted the roles of correctional officers are in a challenging environment.

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“We’re paramedics, peace officers, firefighters, counsellors, role models, basically, in a negative environment,” he said. “We work behind fences and walls in an ambiguous role as rule enforcer, life saver and positive support in the rehabilitative process of the Canadian criminal justice system. What we see on any given day can be traumatic and life-changing.”

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