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Correctional nurses at Queen’s Park: ‘Fix the problem – don’t shift it’

On May 31, some 25 correctional nurses converged on Queen’s Park to raise awareness of the crisis afflicting correctional health care. They are among the 900 nurses who work in the Ministry of Community Safety and Correctional Services (MCSCS) and the Ministry of Children and Youth Services – all of whom are represented by OPSEU.

Last summer, the nurses decided it was time to organize themselves within the union to address the crisis in corrections as it applied to them. The lobby day was their latest effort to voice their concerns to the government and opposition MPPs.

A large number of MPPs and ministers attended the kickoff breakfast, which featured guest speakers Marie-France Lalonde, Minister of Community Safety and Correctional Services (MCSCS), PC corrections critic Rick Nicholls, NDP health critic France Gélinas, MCSCS MERC co-chair Monte Vieselmeyer, and OPSEU President Warren (Smokey) Thomas.

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Autumn Butsch

Children and Youth Services MERC co-chair Glenna Caldwell was also present, while correctional nurse Autumn Butsch, vice-president of Local 368, took on the role of MC.

Among a large number of issues, correctional nurses have identified four principal areas of concern:

  1. the prospect of correctional nurses’ being moved to the Ministry of Health and Long-Term Care
  2. poor pay, which has exacerbated recruitment and retention problems
  3. the surging number of offenders with mental health and addictions issues
  4. underfunding, which has created a critical shortage of nurses and prevented them from providing adequate and appropriate care to their clients

Minister Lalonde addressed the nurses’ first concern in her remarks.

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Minister Lalonde with Dawn Goodenough

“Your dedication to your profession and to your patients is something we should all be thankful for. You are the front line for correctional health care,” she began. “You know better than anyone the challenges, but also the opportunities, that exist within the walls of our correctional institutions.

 “Minister [of Health and Long-Term Care] Hoskins and I are exploring the option of shifting the oversight of correctional health care services to the Ministry of Health,” she said, “which means engaging with each and every one of you. Your insight and your ongoing commitment are vital to our success.

“I hear some concerns,” Lalonde admitted, “and I’m going to listen to those concerns, and we’re going to work together in exploring those options. This has been recommended, though, by many, many people, including Mr. Howard Sapers in his correctional report.”

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Executive Board Member Lucy Morton speaks with MPP Rick Nicholls

Rick Nicholls, Progressive Conservative critic for corrections, stressed that nurses must be the first to be consulted when it comes to fixing correctional health care. “If there’s a way to make things better,” he said to the minister, “you’d best be listening to frontline staff, because they know exactly where the issues and challenges are – and they know how to make it better.”

In her remarks, NDP corrections critic France Gélinas spoke about the pressing issue of mental health care in adult institutions and youth facilities. “Jail is the worst possible place for people with a mental illness to get better,” she observed. “Mental health is easy to ignore – but not when you’re facing it each and every day on every one of your shifts,” said Gélinas. “We get there by listening to you, funding the needs you have, and ensuring we have enough staff to look after the needs of people.”

Monte Vieselmeyer, accompanied by Corrections MERC members Chris Jackel and Chad Oldfield, was insistent that any transformation in corrections had to be evidence-based.

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Monte Vieselmeyer

“Have we looked at the critical data?” he wondered. “Have we looked at why we’re doing it and whether it’s going to serve the needs of our clients? Right now it’s more a matter of opinion. We haven’t seen that evidence-based aspect.”

Like previous speakers, Vieselmeyer underscored the importance of consulting with correctional nurses. “Both in the Sapers report and the Ombudsman’s report, you need to get the frontline staff’s opinion. So far, we’ve not yet had that opportunity to meet with the government. Particularly with respect to our nurses, you need their input and buy-in.”

OPSEU President Thomas was the last to speak. In his remarks, he addressed all of the nurses’ primary concerns, starting with mental health.

“I’ve been lobbying for as long as I can remember for a task force that includes all affected ministries: Health, Community and Social Services, the Solicitor General, and Corrections,” he said. “Because until you fix some of the other systems, everything that happens inside a jail will just get worse.

He went on: “I’m an RPN by trade. I worked all my adult life in Kingston Psychiatric Hospital. There needs to be some serious dollars put into how you’re going to address the fact that 50 per cent of inmates have mental health or addictions issues.”

Speaking about the Ontario Correctional Nurses' Interest Group (OCNIG) – an association of managers who claim to represent correctional nurses – Thomas was emphatic: they do not have right to intrude in correctional nurses’ business.

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Warren (Smokey) Thomas

“OCNIG think that somehow they have some authority,” Thomas said. “But they don’t. They’re not the bargaining agent. They’re simply an association that somehow says they lobby. They haven’t been on the floor in years. Their interests, in my view, are not germane to the issues of nurses or clients in correctional facilities.”

Thomas also questioned a possible move to the Ministry of Health and Long-Term Care.

“Moving nurses to Health will get you nothing but vicious blowback and a fight the likes of which you’ve never seen before, because the nurses don’t want it. You just can’t have two bosses.”

Turning to the minister, Thomas said she had to listen carefully to what the nurses have to say. “I truly believe, Minister, that your heart’s in the right place. But you have a monumental task ahead of you. It is a generational change.

“But there are immediate things you can do for the nurses,” he continued. “They can go to a nursing home and be sure they’re coming home at night and won’t get hurt or a whole host of things that could happen to them – and make $7 or $8 an hour more.smokey_listening.jpg

“Put the money on the table: pay nurses what they’re worth. Nurses work in a unique set of circumstances. There is danger, but that danger isn’t recognized in their pay packet. It’s not a hard fix. In the grand scheme of things, it’s spitting in the ocean.”

Thomas concluded with four pieces of advice for the minister: “Hiring psych nurses is not a replacement for the mental health system. Don’t move the nurses to Health: you won’t find a nurse who agrees with that. Fix the pay packet. Listen carefully to what the nurses have to say.”

Later that morning in the legislature, MPP Nicholls asked a question about the security of correctional nurses, quoting Dawn Goodenough, a correctional nurse and steward at Maplehurst Correctional Complex: “One of our most urgent needs is finding alternatives to segregation. Mental health is a huge concern right now. To simply say that we can’t segregate – without alternatives in place – will only lead to more violence.”

In her response, the minister did not mention segregation or possible alternatives to it.

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A group photo before nurses went off to meet with MPPs privately.