KENORA — Despite a major new expansion, the head of the union representing staff at the Kenora Jail is expressing concern about the ability to utilize 50 new correctional beds.
The province first announced the expansion projects for both the Kenora Jail and Thunder Bay Correctional Centre in October 2020, and they were set to be completed last summer.
The province described the new infrastructure being "built rapidly using innovative modular construction, these expansions will add beds to alleviate capacity pressures and create more space for effective programming such as literacy and skills development that support safe community reintegration."
Despite the expansion to the Thunder Bay facility beginning to intake inmates, the Kenora space is still waiting to be used.
OPSEU Local 719 president Dave McConomy said the building may look complete from the outside, but there is still work to be done.
"There are a number of serious Infrastructure deficiencies that will need to be rectified prior to safely moving and housing inmates in the building,” he said in a written statement.
“Safety and security of inmates, staff and the community at large are the top priority for everyone, especially the staff at the Kenora Jail. Until these building-related issues are solved it would not be prudent or safe to house inmates in the unit.”
Along with the physical infrastructure needs, McConomy said a staffing shortage is another major issue that needs to be addressed.
Staffing the facility has been a major challenge dating back to 2015, he said.
“We have not had a full staffing complement since then and hiring has not kept up to requirements. The addition of a new building that requires more correctional officers has only made the staffing situation worse,” he said.
McConomy said if the new building was opened new, the security concerns would likely result in a months-long lockdown, which he expects would "lead to inmate unrest and unnecessary safety concerns and stress on the staff.”
He said the staff within the existing jail site have managed those staffing shortages to prevent lockdowns.
“I am advised that we have a near-zero lockdown ratio over the last year, the province can't come close to bragging about that in any other facility. It’s our people that have accomplished this. We have been fortunate to have staff come from elsewhere in Ontario to help us,” said McConomy. “Our Kenora Jail staff give up their days off to ensure we stay unlocked and to support each other, which in turn keeps the inmates in a better overall situation while in custody, ”
Although the current facility is overcrowded, the inmates can leave their cells, partake in outdoor recreation, family visits, and obtain mental health and social work programming. McConomy said the facility can do more with sufficient staff.
However, if they were to split the staff between the two jails “that is a short-sighted and dangerous solution.”
Last April, the province also announced a $5-million program to attract and retain corrections staff in the northern region.
McConomy said that program, which can provide between $4,000 and $15,000 in recruitment incentives, can help provide the stability needed to address the staffing shortages.
He said there are hiring initiatives taking place in Kenora that are being done nowhere else in the province. That has resulted in "hundreds" of applications that have gone to the province's central recruiting team, he said, adding it's now up to the province to go forward with hiring.
“The Kenora Jail team has a group of great young correctional officers, all volunteering to recruit, who together, have been out in Kenora and surrounding communities recruiting for our facility,” said McConomy.
“We have a fantastic, welcoming staff group here in Kenora, we just need more.”