They aren’t the nicest patients; some are aggressive, some are prone to escape and some are violent. When the province’s inmates go to the hospital, they need to be watched — and that means they need a guard. But a CityNews investigation reveals that the Ministry of Correctional Services has been increasingly relying on police officers to do correctional officers’ work, ringing up a $6.8-million bill in 2014 alone. Calling the cops has translated into costs nearly three times that of hospital escorts with existing correctional staff, according to documents obtained through a Freedom of Information request, and over the past two years, those bills have doubled.
“We are so short-staffed across the province that the ministry has been forced to contract with all these local police agencies,” says Greg Arnold, a 33-year corrections veteran and OPSEU representative. “A new approach to corrections compounds the problem. The province closed several small and medium jails over the past few years, replacing them with super-jails, like the Toronto South Detention Centre and SouthWest Detention Centre in Windsor. These state-of-the-art institutions have expanded capacities and direct supervision of inmates, requiring more staff than is available- which is why both of these jails have been slow to completely open, are often in lock-down, and struggle to keep enough staff on hand.
“The hiring freeze over the past couple of years has really hurt us. All of our institutions are short,” says Arnold.
Instead of addressing these staffing shortages, OPSEU, the union representing Ontario’s correctional officers, says the province has relied on overtime and contracting out part of their work.
Arnold says hospital escorts are a critical part of correctional officers’ jobs. Although most institutions have infirmaries and/or health care facilities, when an inmate needs to see a specialist, is undergoing surgery or has an injury or illness untreatable at the jail, they head to the hospital with two guards at their bedside. According to the Ministry’s website, correctional officers earn between $24.02 and $31.79 an hour. But when a paid-duty police officer is called to do the same job, they get paid $68 an hour, with an additional 15 per cent administration fee, translating into an hourly cost of $78.20 to the ministry, plus HST. Over the past six years, Toronto police officers have earned about $11 million watching inmates in hospitals, with the Ministry paying more than $1.5 million to Toronto Police Service in administration fees.
Yasir Naqvi, minister of correctional services, tried to downplay the role that staffing levels play in hiring police officers to sit with inmates.
But corrections sources tell CityNews that the issue is entirely about staffing. “We have OC Spray (pepper spray), batons, (hand)cuffs and leg cuffs. We don’t have guns but we can restrain an inmate, we can stop them (from escaping).”
“That’s our job. We do it everyday. It comes down to not enough of us – and that’s the government’s fault,” says a corrections source.
Last year the government hired 400 new correctional officers, in the first hiring blitz since 2009, but during that time the union says about 470 officers left the field. Naqvi says the government is making progress in filling the posts, but the union says the government has been dragging its feet since December, when their collective agreement expired.
Arnold says jails need another 500-700 correctional officers for corrections to operate smoothly, at least 20 times the number of current students. Union officials say not filling vacancies or delays in getting more part-time officers trained has contributed to a high number of inmate-on-inmate assaults, attacks on staff and skyrocketing overtime bills. Senior correctional officers earn about $66,000 a year — but a quick scan of last year’s sunshine list reveals that several hundred correctional officers have earned the requisite $100,000 to make the list — one notable officer worked enough overtime to nearly triple his salary — taking in $175,175.89, compared to Naqvi’s $162,160.29, or Elgin-Middlesex Detention Centre’s superintendent at $115, 291.82.
According to documents obtained through a Freedom of Information request, 1,080,019 hours of overtime were logged by correctional staff in the 2012/2013 fiscal year. Overtime has been a key source of staffing for the ministry for years — even before the hiring freeze. In 2009/10, 832,874 overtime hours were paid out, about a 5 per cent increase from 2003/04 when 787,561 were billed.
“I’m spending a lot of time and energy working along with our correctional staff and correctional officers to make sure that we’ve got the appropriate staffing levels,” Naqvi said.