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“My job is meaningless:” Prison guards at B.C.’s only maximum-security prison report low morale

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A poorly-functioning system at Kent Institution could jeopardize employee and inmate safety, says expert

Kent Institution in Agassiz.

Kent Institution in Agassiz. Colin Price / PNG Files

The union representing Canada’s correctional officers is calling for better communication between prison management and staff at Kent Institution after a mental health survey found it to be a “highly-dysfunctional and unhealthy” workplace.

“There’s been a series of big changes, both nationally and at the local level, and I think many officers are reaching burnout level,” said Derek Chin, Pacific regional president for the Union of Canadian Correctional Officers (UCCO-SACC).

Commissioned by the union and conducted by retired RCMP director of change management Eli Sopow, the report surveyed 174 out of a possible 223 unionized correctional officers at Kent Institution in March and April of this year.

Chin said the results were not particularly surprising given all the changes Canadian prison guards have experienced recently, including new rules for holding inmates in solitary confinement, the gradual rollout of a prison needle exchange program (which has not yet been implemented at Kent) and an overhaul to transgender inmate policy.

“So many things are contributing to this situation. There’s a lot of concern about how the job is changing,” said Chin.

At the local level, officers are faced with increased demands to work overtime, a high number of staff on sick leave and a “wholesale change of managers” at the prison.

“In an environment like Kent, staff really rely on each other and need to trust their correctional managers,” said Chin.

According to the survey, 42 officers at Kent were on “injury on duty leave” in April 2019. It was estimated that 10 were off due to physical injuries, while several others were due to stress.

In the first four month of 2019, there had been 54 transfer requests from guards who wanted to leave the prison, compared to 2018 when there were 48 requests for the entire year, and 2017 when there were 35. In each of those years, five officers from other institutions requested transfers to Kent.

The survey included a selection of anonymous responses from prison guards.

“I feel like I am on the Titanic. There is no rescue coming,” said one.

Another said “management has destroyed Kent Institution to the point that my job is meaningless.”

One guard said he or she felt like there was a “target on my back both by inmates and management.” The person was off work due to an injury they believed was a “direct result of extremely poor population management and the fact that there is no consequence for the inmates.”

Sopow’s report said some guards were hopeful the situation could improve, as conditions had been better in the past, leading the expert to conclude “it is not the profession that is creating emotional and physical health problems, it is the current systems and processes of management.”

Sopow, a professor at University Canada West, also noted the risks associated with a poorly-functioning system at a maximum-security prison, saying the situation could possibly jeopardize “employee and inmate safety.”

The Correctional Service of Canada was unable to respond to a Postmedia request for comment before deadline.

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