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Assaults, drugs and drones: Corrections union adamant violence has increased inside Atlantic prisons

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Razor blades taped to a tin can, slicing a correctional officer’s hand. Rene Howe says it happened last week at a federal prison in the Maritimes – an incident, he says, that has become the norm.

“We expect an inherent risk of danger. However, the risk of danger that we’re (experiencing) these days is everyday,” he said in an interview with CTV Atlantic.

Howe has served as a correctional officer since 1995, but is currently a regional president of the Union of Canadian Correctional Officers. He’s adamant violence inside Atlantic prisons is worse than ever before.

“When you're walking around a facility as an inmate and you know that you can carry weapons such as brass knuckles, homemade knives, you're getting drone drops, and drones are bringing in not just drugs now they're bringing in weapons, they're bringing in cell phones, they're bringing in all kinds of contraband,” he said. “There needs to be accountability for that.”

Howe says of roughly 1,000 officers in the Atlantic region, about 10-to-15 per cent are off due to a workplace injury.

But he feels no one is listening.

Howe collected recent data from the Atlantic Institution in Renous, N.B. Since September:

  • 14 officers have been assaulted
  • 66 inmates have been assaulted
  • 63 cases of drugs found and removed
  • 175 weapons found and removed
  • 68 reports of overdoses, or inmates found in an altered state of consciousness

Howe also said there have been “multiple” drone sightings.

In 2019, Bill C-83 essentially abolished the act of solitary confinement, replacing it with what’s known as structured intervention units (SIU). Those units still allow inmates to interact with some people for a certain amount of time each day.

Howe isn’t suggesting SIU’s are always the answer, but he believes the increase in violence is linked to inmates not being held accountable for their actions.

“What commonly happens is the officer will write an institutional charge and that will go to ICP (independent chairpersons) court and the charges will be heard. But the sanction on that charge most often is a fine with, you know, a $5 fine or time over your head, meaning you're going to be good for 30 days or you'll have another fine,” he explained. “The sanction to the charges are very minimal. It doesn't reflect the offense whatsoever. And oftentimes charges are not heard or they're thrown out because of timelines.”

Correctional Service of Canada said it wasn’t able to accommodate an interview, but sent CTV a statement acknowledging there are issues that “require ongoing attention, vigilance and action, and we are all working towards the same goal.”

“Increasingly, this priority is undermined by the introduction of unauthorized materials in CSC institutions such as drugs, weapons and cellular telephones through drones,” the CSC said in the statement. “These items fuel violence, gang activity, addiction, and significantly undercut CSC’s rehabilitation efforts. CSC has developed a multi-prong approach to mitigate the risks from the introduction of contraband, such as harm-reduction measures and the use of technology aimed at interdicting its entry in CSC institutions.”

Drones have become key to inmates accessing weapons and drugs.

A union official in British Columbia spoke out in November, saying a prison in the Fraser Valley was struggling to contain a spiralling drug problem, with drones making multiple deliveries to prisoners each day.

Howe said he’s been told every institution has a drone detection system, but he doesn’t believe they work.

Rose Ricciardelli, research chair in safety, security and wellness at Memorial University, says more resources are needed to break the cycle of drug use.

“What's really clear to me is that drugs are a problem…we need more resources like behavior counselors, etc., to be able to help people overcome these challenges,” she said. “So long as people want the drugs, the drones will come,”

Ricciardelli is also a trained correctional officer and spent the last week at a prison on shift.

While she did observe difficult moments, she also took note at how the officer’s reacted.

“I saw compassion that I didn't think was possible. And I saw people have to deal with things that were very adverse and find a way to protect themselves too, but always with best intention,” she said.

She feels the rise in violence in federal prisons could be attributed to a number of issues.

“The data is suggesting that it's intensifying, but it's also really hard to know for certain because COVID and lockdowns created an environment and before that there was a huge overdose crisis in certain institutions,” she said.

Howe says he feels a sense of responsibility to speak out for the officers he represents because he’s worried an incident will turn fatal.

“CSC really needs to crack down and say, you know, we're going to support our officers and we're going to form a plan that's going to make our work environment much safer than what it is today,” he said. “We need changes today, we can’t wait until tomorrow.”

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