Alberta Jail Workers Vow To Continue Strike

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JAILS ALBERTA
More workers at detention centres in Alberta have walked off the job, engaging in what the province's justice minister is calling an "illegal job action. " (Shutterstock) | Shutterstock

EDMONTON - Alberta prison guards showed no signs of flinching Saturday in the face of a labour board ruling declaring their wildcat strike illegal and the province's deputy premier claiming inmates were trashing at least one jail.

Guy Smith of the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees says the guards at the Edmonton Remand Centre and another facility in Fort Saskatchewan were vowing to continue their strike until safety concerns are addressed.

"We've encouraged them to stand strong as they've done over the last couple of days. And they know there's other sites across the province that are out as well. And on that basis they've decided to stick it out," Smith said late Saturday.

At least seven detention centres saw guards walk off the job in protest of the suspension of an employee at the Edmonton facility who complained about safety issues.

Inmates have been restricted to their jail cells and striking staff have been either replaced by municipal police or RCMP officers who are backing up correctional supervisors.

Deputy Premier Thomas Lukaszuk refused to say whether guards would be charged for refusing to abide by the labour board's ruling to return to work.

"We will not be negotiating with a union that continues to engage in illegal activities," Lukaszuk vowed during a hastily called news conference at the legislature.

"We will be using any and all legal means to bring order back to these facilities."

Several hundred members of various unions gathered outside the labour board's offices in downtown Edmonton on Saturday as the board members deliberated the province's request for an injunction against the strike.

Many chanted, "Shame," when they heard the ruling. Others called for a general strike.

"What happened in there is what we expected to happen. But that doesn't make it any less shameful," Alberta Federation of Labour president Gil McGowan told the crowd.

"These workers did the brave thing, they did the right thing, for demanding a safe workplace and for standing up for their fellow workers who were disciplined for having the audacity to demand a safe workplace."

The province says the labour board ruling applies only to the two facilities and that it is handling the job actions at the other facilities separately.

Smith said the guards who've been ordered to return to work are well aware of the potential legal repercussions they're facing.

"It's really unfortunate in my mind that instead of sitting down with us and sorting this stuff out, the government has decided to go to the courts and the labour board to turn hardworking correctional peace officers into criminals. It's absolutely shameful," Smith said.

The guards' union has said the suspension of the union member on Friday was the last straw for correctional officers who have complained about the design of the new Edmonton Remand Centre.

Just days before the jail opened, the AUPE said it found five pages of design flaws after touring the facility.

At that time, Smith asked the provincial government to delay the transfer of prisoners from the old remand centre until the changes were made.

Lukaszuk said the facility was deemed safe by occupational health and safety workers, which he noted were also members of the AUPE. He said that if the guards have safety concerns, there are legal remedies that exist in their collective agreement.

He said inmates have been trashing the new Edmonton Remand Centre during the disruption.

He cautioned the reports he is getting are second-hand and that officials were trying to get confirmation, but he said inmates were exploiting the change in routine at the facility in order to cause damage.

"It's heartbreaking that a brand new $580 million facility that taxpayers have paid for is being trashed by inmates right now," said Lukaszuk, who also stressed that no one was in any danger inside or outside the province's jails.

Lukaszuk said there were no reports of injuries. He also said that some prisoners at some facilities were not being confined to their cells and had some ability to move around. Inmates were being fed and were receiving their medications, he said.

The United Nurses of Alberta said a number of its members feared for their safety after the evening shift nurses were ordered to remain inside the Edmonton Remand Centre overnight.

Heather Smith said that at 3 a.m., the nurses there were told by a supervisor to stay close to an escape route.

The union said that as of Saturday morning, all of its members had left the remand centre.

Rory Ziv, a criminal defence lawyer in Edmonton, said it was impossible for him or other lawyers to know what conditions were like inside the facilities during the lockdown. As long as it remained in place, he explained, lawyers couldn't contact their clients.

Ziv said colleagues have been texting him to find out if he has any information, noting it was frustrating for lawyers because many of them only get time to speak with their clients on weekends.

"I'm really concerned for the safety and well-being of the inmates who rely heavily on the guards to feed them and allow them to take part in recreational activities," Ziv said.

"There are others who are more vulnerable because of their mental health or their physical health."

"They need medication or protection from other prisoners."

Alberta justice minister Jonathan Denis said in a news release early Saturday morning that there will be an investigation of the walkout, but he said maintaining public safety and security is currently the province's top priority.

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