Justice officials shore up nasty workplace

Three years after female guards reported sexual harassment by male colleagues and inmates at the Whitehorse Correctional Facility, Justice officials…

Three years after female guards reported sexual harassment by male colleagues and inmates at the Whitehorse Correctional Facility, Justice officials are still working to change the facility’s culture.

“It’s something we have to work on, phase by phase — culture takes time to change, particularly institutional culture,” said Robert Riches, assistant deputy minister of Justice, on Friday.

To do it, the department has drafted new policies and hiring practices and trained employees, he said.

“We partnered with the Justice institute of BC, we partnered with the Yukon Employees Union and we’ve had partnerships with First Nations in looking at the type of training that is needed for correctional officers,” said Riches.

“We’ve come up with a code of conduct which clearly lays out to all staff in the division what their responsibilities are to each other, and to the clients that we deal with.”

Since the department received an August 2004 report detailing the levels of abuse suffered by female correctional officers at the jail, more women have been hired and women are now in positions of authority, he said.

There are currently 24 women employed at the jail, including 15 corrections officers, three who deliver programs, two nurses, one cook, two supervisors and two administrative staff, according to the Justice department.

In 2004, there were about 14 women working at the jail.

That year, about half of the jail’s female employees complained they were being sexually touched, propositioned or taunted by their male coworkers, who were “modeling” and joining inmates in similar behaviour, said the report, which was recently leaked to the media.

Many of the women were suffering from depression, post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms and anxiety, the report details.

The operational changes to the jail are leading to vast improvements and have been made with the full knowledge and consent of the employees’ union, said Riches.

When the new jail is built in 2011 the culture will continue to improve, he said.

“The new correctional centre is an entirely different correctional centre than the one that was previously designed. The living area is entirely different, the program unit is entirely different and it will work better.

“I’ve always found environment has a huge impact. I closed the old Prince George Regional Correctional Centre, which operated very much like this one does, and opened the new correctional centre.”

The changes in Prince George were dramatic, he said.

The new jail will have to follow a tight schedule to make the 2011 occupancy date announced by politicians in May, Peter Blum, the jail’s project manager, said on Friday.

“If we’ve continued the way we have been planning to, the schedule is going to have to be quite aggressive to meet the 2011 occupancy deadline.”

Since the new jail was announced, improvements to meet Justice department programming have been discussed, he said.

Once that work is completed, more detailed design can begin, said Blum.

“We are working on the development of conceptual options and functional special programming, which will describe what the facility is going to do and how people relate to each other on a functional-component basis.

“The work that was underway over the last year was to consult with the building advisory committee, and that committee consists of members of Justice and a number of stakeholders,” said Blum.

“That was to look at various broad-stroke concepts. We’re now looking at that and applying a more detailed investigation into how to meet our needs.”

Work originally undertaken under the former Liberal government is also being used, and more tenders on new work may go out as early as next year, he said.

Contracts that have already been awarded include a $31,000 “functional/special options” analysis to Matrix Planning Associates, a jail/RCMP co-location feasibility study by Jug Island Consulting, a jail feasibility study and $25,000 schematic design agreement to DGBK Architects, and the analysis of the suitability of a different location, which went to EBA Engineering, according to Justice.

A cost estimate for the new jail is not yet available.

“The decisions that are being made now will be critical to the success of the project in the long term,” Blum said.