Ontario’s Ministry of Labour says it is investigating a weekend disturbance at the Toronto South Detention Centre in which correctional officers say they were assaulted by inmates.
The ministry says it is also investigating a refusal by about 200 employees at the provincial jail on Monday to carry out non-essential tasks in response to the alleged assault on Saturday night.
Two correctional officers were taken to hospital after suffering concussion-like symptoms and facial scratches in what their union is calling an “attack.” The officers were treated and released.
Janet Deline, a spokesperson for the ministry, said in an email on Tuesday that an inspector went to the jail in Etobicoke on Monday to begin the investigation. The jail is near the Gardiner Expressway and Kipling Avenue.
“Everyone should be able to work in a safe and healthy workplace. The ministry of labour takes workplace violence and workplace harassment very seriously,” she said.
According to Ontario Public Service Employees Union (OPSEU), a group of inmates had staged what looked like a fight in a cell on Saturday night, then turned on the officers who tried to intervene. Two officers were punched in the head and had garbage cans thrown at them, the union said.
In response, employees at the jail engaged in a “work refusal” on Monday. Union leaders said the workers were back on the job by Monday afternoon.
Deline said the ministry has asked the employer, the Ontario Ministry of Community Safety and Correctional Services, to provide a copy of a video and documentation. OPSEU said the video being requested is of the alleged assault and it has until Friday to provide it.
Alleged assault not ‘critical injury’ incident: ministry
As for the alleged attack itself, Deline said the ministry doesn’t consider it a “critical injury” incident.
“Staff went to the hospital and were medically assessed and released the same day. It is our understanding that Toronto Paramedics did not attend the scene,” she added.
Deline said the ministry was informed about the alleged assault and job action on Monday. She said the inspector who went to the jail determined that the job action did not meet the requirements of a “work refusal” under the Occupational Health and Safety Act.
She said that means the work refusal is being investigated simply as a complaint.
Jail said to be understaffed
Under the Occupational Health and Safety Act, workers have the right to refuse work they believe will endanger their health and safety, she noted.
“Certain occupations, like correctional workers, have limited rights to refuse work — for example: when the work is a normal condition of their employment, or when the refusal to work would directly endanger the life, health or safety of another person,” she said.
In the event of a work refusal, employers are required by the act to conduct an investigation. But if parties in the workplace cannot resolve the issue internally, through a joint health and safety committee, then the ministry will investigate the work refusal, she added.
Chris Jackel, co-chair of OPSEU’s corrections division, said the ministry tends to dismiss officers’ concerns by saying such incidents are part of the job, but this investigation is an opportunity for the ministry to look at the issue of violence in jails more broadly and as part of a systemic problem.
“Our concerns often go nowhere,” he said.
On Monday, Warren (Smokey) Thomas, president of OPSEU, told CBC Toronto that the jail is understaffed and there are too few staff to deal with too many inmates.
“The real crux of the problem is the government either can’t, or won’t, hire enough people to staff the place safely,” he said.” We are trying to sort this out. We are trying to make the place safe.”