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Talks set for Friday aimed at avoiding possible corrections strike

TORONTO — The union for jail guards and probation officers will meet with the Ontario government Friday in a last-ditch attempt at reaching a contract deal ahead of a looming strike date.

Smokey Thomas, the president of the Ontario Public Service Employees Union, said the two sides have agreed to meet with a mediator ahead of Sunday at 12:01 a.m., when the workers are in legal strike position.

The government, meanwhile, has been making contingency plans in the event of a strike to have managers from other areas of the public service help keep the jails and probation offices running.

Most direct contact with inmates "will be handled and overseen by experienced corrections managers," said a spokeswoman, but Thomas is worried that the government will be woefully unprepared to run the jails and monitor offenders on parole and probation.

"I think they think they can handle it, but I truly fear they're going to be horribly mistaken and I just pray it's not with tragic results," Thomas said.

The last time Ontario's jail guards were on strike was in 2002, during a 54-day strike by civil servants. Disturbances broke out across the province's jails, ranging from outright riots to inmates breaking windows and setting fires. Managers desperately tried to keep inmates, on lockdown, in line with pizza and porn, the union charged.

Nurses, maintenance workers and kitchen staff who work in jails are covered by the general public service contract, not the separate corrections bargaining unit, so they will be expected to report for duty. But Thomas said he is instructing them not to go in until they are satisfied the managers running the jails during a strike can ensure their safety.

Strike preparations have long been in the works, as the correctional and probation workers have been without a contract since December 2014, with the government spending $8.5 million on training and renovating spaces in the jails.

The government refused to give specifics of how that $8.5 million was spent, but the union said they have put in living quarters for the managers to run the jails on a 24-hour basis, placed trailers on some jail grounds and trucked in refrigerated containers of frozen food.

The "infrastructure improvements" were designed to be repurposed following a possible strike for such uses as new programming space for inmates, said Annie Donolo, a spokeswoman for Treasury Board President Deb Matthews.

The OPSEU correctional workers rejected an earlier tentative settlement that would have seen no wage increase for the first year of the deal — the year that just concluded — a lump sum this year and a 1.4 per cent raise next year.

Thomas said one of the members' main sticking points is that they want to be declared an essential service. That would mean they lose the right to strike, but their contracts would go to binding arbitration and their pay would move toward parity with police officers and firefighters.

The workers also want language in the contract to address overcrowding and understaffing in jails, Thomas said.

Jennifer French, the NDP's corrections critic, has been visiting jails and probation offices over the past few weeks and said that she has seen double-, triple- and even quadruple-bunking. In the event of a strike she said she worries not just about safety in jails, but in the community, where violent and sex offenders on probation are monitored.

"The premier and the minister are playing chicken with community safety," she said.

Allison Jones, The Canadian Press

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