OPSEU head calls for premier to visit EMDC before situation worsens
London Community News
By Paul Everest/London Community News/Twitter: @PaulEverest
As he emerged from the Elgin-Middlesex Detention Centre (EMDC) following a tour of the troubled prison, the president of the Ontario Public Service Employees Union (OPSEU) issued a warning that more chaos is waiting to erupt at the facility once media and community attention about terrible conditions within die down.
“We’re in the eye of the hurricane,” said Warren “Smokey” Thomas. “I think it’s going to blow back up again and they’ll start the overcrowding again.”
Before the situation gets worse, he added, Premier Dalton McGuinty needs to come to London to see conditions at the jail first-hand if the provincial government wants to find a solution to the prison’s problems.
“I want the premier himself to come down here to tour the institution along with the minister (of Community Safety and Correctional Services).”
Thomas and other OPSEU members received an inside look at the prison Tuesday morning (Aug. 14) in the wake of weeks of lockdowns, overcrowding and near riot-like conditions.
He described the mood of the prison’s guards, who are represented by the union, as “disheartened” due to the stresses of having to deal with nearly 500 inmates while short-staffed.
“They just want to come to work, do their job, go home and be safe. They don’t feel they have that.”
The facility has fallen into the dangerous state it is currently in due to underfunding for the provincial Community Safety and Correctional Services Ministry, which is responsible for the prison, the closure of other regional detention centres and a management staff that is too detached from what’s really happening inside the EMDC, Thomas said.
He is calling for the reopening of other recently closed regional prisons to help solve the overcrowding problem at the EMDC, as well as for an “infusion of cash” from the province to go towards providing more beds and improving staffing levels—for nurses as well as guards.
We warned the government months ago that they were going to have trouble in the institutions in the summer with staffing for vacations because they just don’t have enough staff,” Thomas said. “They stopped training a few years ago at the college and they stopped hiring.”
Along with a need for more guards to manage the EMDC’s overflowing population, Thomas said he also has learned the facility has a shortage of nurses and no nurse is available for inmates after 11 p.m.
Overcrowding is being blamed for many of the problems at the EMDC and because there are more inmates than beds at the facility, in some cases three inmates have to share a cell designed for two.
Thomas told reporters he had received information that guards were recently given an order to put five people in a cell meant for two inmates.
A spokesman for the ministry said, however, that information is incorrect.
“The ministry never has more than three people in two-person cells and we never have more than five people in four-person cells,” said Brent Ross.
Thomas said union members working at the prison have expressed concerns to him about receiving little or no support from EMDC management and described the relationship between staff and the facility’s administration as “terrible labour relations.”
He added it’s time for some drastic measures to improve conditions for guards and inmates alike at the prison.
“The system itself, right from the top on down, needs an overhaul, and I would welcome anything the auditor general or any outside party could do.”
Community Safety and Correctional Services Minister Madeleine Meilleur, who had previously toured the EMDC, sat down on Tuesday evening with Elgin-Middlesex-London MPP Jeff Yurek to talk about the situation at the facility.
She said she discussed an “action plan” with Yurek to address the problems at the prison, which includes transferring inmates to other detention centres to alleviate overcrowding.
When asked about the union’s calls to bring in more guards and nurses, Meilleur said “the assistant deputy minister is looking into it.”
“He’s going to come back with a plan,” she said. “They have to look at it. They felt at the time that they had enough staff, but they are reviewing it too.”
Meilleur wouldn’t rule out the idea of the premier coming to tour the prison, but said ministry staff are “competent” enough to address concerns about the EMDC at the moment.
The next step, she added, is meeting with other area MPPs on Wednesday (Aug. 15) to discuss the situation at the prison.
Yurek responded to a request for comment with a media release issued Tuesday evening.
He said he pressed Meilleur for timelines on the ministry’s action plan and “was unsatisfied with the vague nature of some these timelines.”
“I’m glad that this issue has come under scrutiny,” Yurek said in the release. “However, in the long-run, we can’t tolerate this pattern of crisis and reform. Proactive action needs to be taken to avoid the kind of violence we’ve seen in recent weeks.”
He added he and MPP Bob Bailey, the Progressive Conservative party’s corrections critic who also joined the meeting by teleconference, “will review the ministry’s action plan and continue to meet with stakeholders at the prison to assess feasibility and offer suggestions where needed.”
“The important thing is to stay on top of this issue. We want to avoid spikes in violence to ensure the guards and inmates remain protected and safe.”