The Alberta Union of Provincial Employees says it found five pages of design flaws after recently touring the sprawling $569-million Edmonton facility, which is designed to hold up to 2,000 people who have been charged and are waiting for trials.
Union president Guy Smith has asked the provincial government to delay the transfer of prisoners as early as this weekend from the old remand centre until changes are made.
"It is absolutely essential for all involved that this new building, with all the potential it has to be a facility that works for inmates and also for our members, is as safe as possible," Smith said Thursday.
"At this time, we don't believe that it is safe enough to move inmates into."
The union said it is also not satisfied with some of the new approaches to be used that will require guards to work with inmates much more closely.
Smith said the union has filed a formal complaint under Alberta's Occupational Health and Safety Act that the government is required to respond to.
The law allows employees to turn down work if there are reasonable and probable grounds that a job would put their health or safety in imminent danger.
Justice Minister Jonathan Denis told reporters Thursday in Calgary the complaints had not been raised with him before.
"I was actually very surprised to hear that because I have met with some of the union officials and they did not bring any of these issues up," he said.
"We've done our own hazard assessments. Officer safety is always paramount and we have not identified any issues that they have mentioned," Denis said.
"I am willing to keep talking about the topic but the remand centre will open as planned."
The new state-of-the-art remand centre is spread over a site larger than 26 football fields. It was built to replace the sometimes violent, overcrowded downtown remand centre.
Older centres were designed to hold inmates for less than 10 days. Now some inmates can spend up to two years waiting for their cases to be heard.
Officials have said the new jail will help deal with an influx of inmates expected from new federal anti-crime legislation and to take pressure off other correctional facilities.
Clarke McChesney, head of the union local that represents 580 correctional peace officers who will work at the jail, said his people are worried.
The union declined to explain specific design problems, due to safety concerns should prisoners become aware of them.
Inmates at the old facility, including gang members, are anxious about the change, as well, McChesney said. And, he suggested, if the transition is handled poorly, an already toxic atmosphere could explode. He called it a potential powder keg.
"What we don't want to do is put officers in more danger," he said.
"The sheer enormity of the building, the amount of offenders that are going to be moved in a short period of time, make it a volatile situation."
The union said changes it wants could take anywhere from two weeks to six months to address.
— With files from Bill Graveland in Calgary
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