On June 8th, the nationally based Union of Safety and Justice Employees convened a special meeting between 16 federal Parole Officers and Canada’s Public Safety Minister, the Hon. Marco Mendicino. Member of Parliament Pam Damoff, who serves as Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Public Safety, was also in attendance.
The purpose of the meeting was to focus on the findings of a recent report by leading public safety researcher, Dr Rose Ricciardelli, on the high levels of occupational stress injury among federal parole officers. USJE also highlighted some of the unique opportunities and major challenges in the federal correctional system when it comes to the effective rehabilitation and re-integration of federal offenders.
USJE convened a selection of sixteen Parole Officers from across this country for this roundtable which reflected the diversity, regions, and languages within which USJE’s members work. We endeavoured to strike a balance between federal institutions and the community, and to have the voice of Parole Officer Supervisors and Managers of Assessment and Intervention also represented.
One of the key messages USJE has been sharing for some years now is that the federal Deficit Reduction Action Plan in 2014 made several damaging cuts to the front lines that have affected public safety. These are cuts that have had long-standing reverberations, and from which federal Correctional staff focused on rehabilitation and reintegration of federal offenders- have not fully recovered.
In particular, the Correctional Service of Canada’s focus on: 1/resourcing parole and case management work ‘to the minimum’; 2/ the current utilization of tools like the Lean method as a way to determine the number of Community Parole offices and support staff at each site; as well as 3/the compression of crucial intake & risk assessment of federal offenders at certain sites, including Joyceville Institution, results in untenably high volumes of case work that ultimately shortchange offenders, compromises public safety, and creates the conditions for Occupational stress injuries.
As a result of the chronically high incidents of harassment coupled with workplace wellbeing issues, the Correctional Service of Canada consistently ranks at the bottom of federal departments/agencies. Without notable improvements to the difficult and high stakes work that USJE’s members undertake to keep Canadians safe, we are not optimistic that, without some of the changes below, offenders will receive the time and attention required for their effective rehabilitation and safe reintegration into communities.
USJE has also emphasized that with the election of a federal Liberal government in 2015, and again in 2019 and 2021, there has been a renewed emphasis on access to parole, and better responding to offenders with complex needs, be they indigenous, racialized or individuals struggling with mental health.
However, apart from the establishment of Structured Interventions Units within federal penitentiaries, there have been almost no new investments in supporting federal offenders, nor the staff who work closely with them. Consequently, the incidents of occupational stress injury among Parole Officers and other correctional staff are extremely high – as is reflected in USJE’s most recent report authored by Dr. Rose Ricciardelli.
Minister Mendicino was very receptive to the experiences and perspectives shared by USJE in this special forum. He was generous with his time and stated more than once his commitment to improving the federal correctional system more generally so that Correctional employees can be effective in their work.
In the short term, we urge Minister Mendicino to have Commissioner Anne Kelly honour the Treasury Board’s commitment to sustaining an effective hybrid work model for federal public service employees while pursuing the following measures:
- Reduce Caseloads for parole offices in federal penitentiaries, community parole offices, and Community Correctional Centres (which house the highest risk offenders) to allow staff more time with offenders, particularly those with complex needs, be they indigenous, racialized, or experiencing chronic mental health issues.
- Retain additional Parole Officers within each region and at various sites specifically for the purposes of properly resourcing this intensive assessment and rehabilitation work at federal penitentiaries and in the community. This includes creating a system so that when Parole officers take leave, the caseload of offenders they supervise are actively assumed by another Parole Officer who doesn’t already have their own caseload to manage. This method of dedicated ‘backfilling’ means that offenders will not experience significant disruptions in access to supports, Parole Officers are not juggling a full caseload in addition to their own, and those Parole Officers on leave are not plagued with worry or guilt while taking mandated leave.
- Restore the Community Correctional Liaison Officer program so that the risk of violence for Community Parole Officers is minimized when visiting high risk offenders in their homes/work sites, and the risk of offenders going Unlawfully at Large is also reduced
- Revamp the federal employee benefits program for Public Safety and Justice employees to significantly increase (from $2000 to $9500) access to qualified, trauma informed psychologists and other mental health experts in the private sector. The federal Employee Assistance program is not designed to provide sophisticated, long-term trauma-informed care. Peer support and mental health readiness and resiliency programs are also not adequate for individuals working day in and day out with offenders (most of whom suffer from trauma) or graphic traumatic materials (witness statements, explicit details of crimes and their impacts etc.). Improving access to the federal benefits program will reduce incidents of sick leave in the long run and will increase the capacity for correctional and justice employees to be effective in their work with offenders.
- Re-invest in funding for psychologists/mental health experts who can work alongside Correctional Program officers in supporting the rehabilitation of high risk and high needs federal offenders. At the same time, accelerate investments in dedicated community and provincially led programs that better equip and facilitate offenders’ access to employment, indigenous-led healing programs, addictions support, mental health treatment and gang involvement. These funds need to be protected for community use only so that they are not re-deployed to federal penitentiaries thereby compromising positive reintegration outcomes for offenders.