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Canada: MTC officers strike for safety.

Superjail guards issue work refusal
By Raymond Bowe
October 15, 2004 - 17:00

Local News - Central North Correctional Centre underwent a prisonwide lockdown last Thursday after the jail’s main computer was reduced to half-capacity.

A malfunction to the prison’s central control computer system — believed to be caused by faulty hard drives — led to a work refusal by correctional officers.

The failure made for an unsafe environment in the admission and discharge area where about 40 prisoners were waiting entrance to the prison. They were rerouted to Central East Correctional Centre in Lindsay while the Penetanguishene problem was fixed. Most were brought back to CNCC the next day.

Prison officials could not be reached for comment.

According to sources representing union interests inside the jail, only two of central control’s four computers were operational.

“That’s big,” said a correctional officer who asked that their name not be published. “Central control is our eyes and ears in the institution. If (computer control) in one unit goes down, central control takes over.”

The malfunction meant opening and closing of doors inside the prison would be slowed substantially, said the correctional officer. The crash also put added stress on officers in central control area.

At that point a work refusal was issued, they said.

“They fix things fairly quickly when there’s a work refusal,” said the correctional officer.

This is not a new problem, however. Both mechanical and technical glitches have been ongoing for about six months, said the correctional officer.

“It’s always breaking down,” they said. “Things are breaking down when they shouldn’t be. The computer system is about three and a half to four years old, and it runs at full capacity 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

“We’re expecting the whole system to crash someday.”

The problems were fixed the next day, including new hard drives.

A spokesperson for the Ontario Public Service Employees Union (OPSEU) said work refusals are rare.

“As a general rule, it’s not a common occurrence,” said Don Ford, a former correctional officer at Toronto’s Metro West Detention Centre.

Work refusals often relate to problematic equipment that can compromise security. For example, faulty doors during the moving of inmates inside the prison could pose a threat to correctional officers.

Work refusals are not a “fireable” offence under the Occupational Health and Safety Act, said Ford, as long as the complaint “is in good faith.”

“It is a fairly big step to take,” said Ford. “Usually they will only take that step if push comes to shove.”

Technology may be part of the problem at CNCC, said Ford.

“With a place like this (CNCC), it’s so automated compared to old jails that still operate with keys on brass rings,” said Ford. “(At CNCC), a computer glitch could release doors, or show they are locked when in fact they are not.”

If confirmation can’t be made through a security camera, a correctional officer must physically view the equipment in question, a potentially dangerous scenario for the guard if inmates in the area have armed themselves with weapons. Without the surveillance cameras, correctional officers would have no inkling of the situation they are walking into.

Six work refusals have been issued in the past at the so-called superjail. Other work refusals were issued due to inadequate searches and sub-par staffing levels.

“It has to be something serious,” said the correctional officer. “This is the first for a computer failure.”

Once a problem area has been identified, an employee can issue the work refusal. The situation will be investigated by the employer as well as a health and safety representative from the union.

“If they can’t agree whether it’s safe, they’ll call in a health and safety inspector from the Ministry of Labour,” Ford said.

The independent third-party investigator will look into the situation and make a determination about the safety and security of the situation.

“Even if the employee was wrong, the act protects them (from being fired),” said Ford.

Last week, CNCC correctional officers were also wary of duress signals in other living units. With problems stemming from central control, correctional officers weren’t confident that back-up systems in each living unit would work as designed.

If prisoners tried to take over a unit’s control room, a correctional officer can activate the duress signal that redirects power to central control. But with central control at half-capacity, guards weren’t satisfied that the back-up system would work, leaving correctional officers in a potentially precarious situation.

If power could not be taken over by central control as the prison design intends for it to happen, prisoners in the unit’s control room would have access to various mechanisms.

Last week, union officials were not satisfied with management’s assertion that power would be redirected to central control should the duress signal be activated.

“No one could satisfy the workers that it would work properly,” said the correctional officer.

For this reason and the computer crash, a facility-wide lockdown was issued Thursday and remained in place for about 24 hours while the problem was fixed.

Union representatives also requested that surplus computer equipment be kept on site should a similar situation arise in the future.

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