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Frontline correctional nurses speak out

Who is more qualified to speak for nurses in Ontario’s correctional system: the professionals who work day and night, seven days a week, to care for dangerous offenders – even at the risk of their lives? Or managers around a boardroom table sipping coffee and thumbing through think-tank papers for “cost efficiencies”?

Correctional nurses at the first campaign meeting in July 2016

Ontario correctional nurses: (front row, l to r) Ingrid Nisbett, Marion Giesler, Autumn Butsch, Dawn Goodenough
(back row, l to r) Monte Vieselmeyer, Elyse Piroli, Trevor Deshevy, Yvon Tremplay, Chantal Russell

That’s one of several questions OPSEU correctional nurses raised at a meeting they held on March 2 – the second in a series of meetings to plan a campaign around the crisis in correctional care.

The question arose when a subgroup of the Registered Nurses’ Association of Ontario (RNAO) calling itself the Ontario Correctional Nurses’ Interest Group (OCNIG) met with elected officials, including Premier Wynne and Corrections Minister Marie-France Lalonde, to discuss corrections nursing.

But Local 368 vice-president Autumn Butsch, who works at the Central East Correctional Centre in Lindsay, underscored that correctional nurses have given OCNIG no mandate to speak on their behalf to anyone.

“Correctional nurses’ sole bargaining agent is OPSEU, period,” she stated emphatically. “OCNIG is led by managers, past and present, with little or no experience working the front lines as correctional nurses. It exists solely to advance its members’ managerial agenda – not to promote the best interests of correctional nurses or the health care of inmates.”

Health and safety was also at the top of the nurses’ agenda. “After our clients’ care, security is our biggest concern – for both staff and offenders,” said Dawn Goodenough, a nurse and steward with Local 234 at Maplehurst Correctional Complex. “In this respect, one of our most urgent needs is finding alternatives to segregation. Mental health is a huge concern right now. To simply say we can’t segregate, without viable alternatives in place, will only lead to more violence.”

Butsch agreed, noting that nurses have to deal with weapons, violence, drugs, and infectious diseases every day. “OPSEU understands the challenges and dangers of our workplace, but the government and the RNAO just don’t seem to get it. We have to get the word out about addressing workplace hazards before a nurse is seriously hurt – or worse.”

Recruitment and retention are also major concerns for correctional nurses, who face punishing workloads because of the lack of nursing staff. Ingrid Nisbett, a nurse with Local 229 at Ontario Correctional Institute, said safety and pay concerns discourage potential recruits. “We work for much less than our federal counterparts and nurses outside corrections, who don’t face our security issues,” she noted. “To be able to attract and retain nurses, the government has to offer a competitive wage.

“Furthermore,” Nisbett continued, “we must have opportunities for further training, particularly in security and mental health. This is freely available in the federal correctional system. Why would the province deny correctional nurses a chance to enhance their personal security and offer their clients even better care?”

Monte Vieselmeyer, chair of the Corrections Ministry Employee Relations Committee (MERC), along with other members of the MERC, were at the meeting. He assured the nurses of OPSEU’s unconditional support.

“Our correctional nurses are the unsung heroes of the corrections system,” said Vieselmeyer. “Few outside corrections realize just how tough their job is, how dangerous it can be – and how dedicated they are to their profession and the people they serve.”

“There’s a crisis in correctional care,” said OPSEU President Warren (Smokey) Thomas. “We need urgent and decisive action from the latest corrections minister, Marie-France Lalonde, to ease it. The health and safety of staff and offenders are in her hands. I trust she will take her new responsibilities for protecting these people very seriously.”

Correctional nurses plan to launch their awareness campaign this spring.