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EXCLUSIVE: Province spending millions for jail guards to stay home

Last Updated Oct 3, 2017 at 10:11 pm EDT

The envelope arrived via Purolator.

“This letter will serve to notify you of your suspension, with pay, for up to 20 days pending the results of an investigation being conducted by the ministry,” the notice read.

That was about a year ago and, since then, Edward*, a correctional officer in a large Ontario jail, has been off work.

“I’ve not had an allegation hearing or even been told why I’m suspended,” Edward told CityNews.

The only progress on the investigation, as far as he can tell, is a week after his suspension, management cleared out his locker and logged the contents.

Every month, he gets the same form letter telling him his suspension will last up to 20 days and that he has to be available Monday to Friday, for potential meetings with investigators or the superintendent. Nobody has called.

“They haven’t said why I’m off, which has made some staff and inmates assume the worst,” he said. “It’s poisoned my work environment.”

In a statement, the Ministry of Community Safety and Correctional Services did not say why some investigations take months, but spokesman Brent Ross said decisions to suspend staff are made on a case-by-case basis.

“Any decision to suspend a ministry staff member pending the outcome of a workplace investigation is not taken lightly,” he said.

As of Aug. 31, the ministry said, 34 officers had been suspended. In January, that number was 49.

In the group are 14 officers from the Central East Correctional Centre (CECC) in Lindsay. They’ve been suspended with pay since December 2016, when Soleiman Faqiri died in custody. Some of the officers weren’t directly involved in the incident, but were simply in the area.

All of the officers are collecting their full pay of about $70,000 a year, as they await the outcome of an investigation. In that jail alone, taxpayers have spent about $816,000 on wages for correctional officers that haven’t stepped foot inside the jail in weeks or months.

“It’s ridiculous,” said Chad Oldfield, a longtime correctional officer and member of OPSEU’s Management Employee Relations Committee (MERC) for corrections.

“The union has been fighting for a long time and activists before us have long said that we need third-party oversight,” Oldfield said.

He’d like to see a process similar to Ontario’s Special Investigations Unit, which investigates police officers accused of wrongdoing among other things.

Instead, Ontario’s corrections minister assigns an internal investigator to look at cases, including use of force, searches, subordination and inmate deaths. The Correctional Services Oversight & Investigations office (CSOI) also oversees use of force and death investigations.

“The way it’s set up right now, we have the ministry investigating the ministry and it’s taking far too long,” Oldfield said.

According to the Sapers report, a long-awaited independent review of Ontario’s corrections system, when the CSOI investigates in-custody deaths, much of the investigation “centres on whether individual staff members followed policies and procedures” rather than the sequence of events leading to deaths.

The report, which was released Tuesday, does not directly address investigations into staff, but does recommend improvements to the way death investigations are handled in general.

“Why would they ask somebody to review this when they don’t even care?” asked Peter, a veteran correctional officer who has been on multiple month-long “administrative leaves” over the past few years, but has never been disciplined.

Meanwhile, taxpayers are paying millions of dollars in wages for officers to sit at home, while other officers are paid to replace them. Officers say morale among staff, and for the officers involved, takes a beating.

Even domestic life has been difficult for some of those off work.

“I’ve got marital stress and financial stress because of this,” Edward said.

While officers aren’t being formally disciplined, administrative leave is still punishing, said MERC vice-chair Chris Jackel.

Typically, disciplinary suspensions last a few days or weeks. Officers can be suspended for a myriad of reasons, including excessive use of force, subordination or even use of social media. Jackel was facing possible suspension last summer when he tweeted about the living conditions of a mentally-ill inmate.

He said that even though officers are being paid their base salaries to stay at home, they lose out on hundreds of dollars of shift premiums and overtime opportunities every month.

“We recognize that suspending a staff member can have a social and economic impact on the employee and their family,” said ministry spokesman Ross, adding officers have access to employee and family assistance while they’re off.

Monte Vieselmeyer, chair of OPSEU’s Corrections Caucus said at one point this year, there was close to 90 officers off on suspension.

“There were about 40 or 50 from Toronto South (Detention Centre),” he explained. “We worked hard to get most of them back to work though.”

An April protest outside the CSOI offices in Mississauga may have helped too. Statistics obtained by CityNews show that as of Tuesday, there only are seven suspended correctional officers at Toronto South, two of whom have been off for a year.

*The officers’ names have been changed to protect their identities.