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Thursday, June 12, 2008

Nova Scotia gets call to arm

June 12, 2008
By DEVIN STEVENS, Chronicle Herald

Justice Department has until June 24 to provide weapons to jail guards

More than two months after a dangerous inmate escaped during a prisoner transfer in Halifax, the province has been ordered to provide jail guards with access to weapons, including a type of pepper spray, batons and Tasers.

"I think it’s important to remember here that the government isn’t coming out and doing this (because they’re) concerned about the safety of Nova Scotians," Jim Gosse, president of Local 480 of the Nova Scotia Government and General Employees Union, said in a phone interview Wednesday. "(If they’re) tough on crime, I don’t think it should have come to the Department of Labour to force their hand in issuing another order they have to comply with."

Jail guards were previously unarmed during escorts.

The compliance order issued on Monday from the Labour Department’s occupational health and safety committee says the Justice Department has until June 24 to come up with an implementation plan. The department will decide which weapons will be made available.

The escort system was thrust into the spotlight on April 3 when inmate Jermaine Carvery escaped while being escorted to a Halifax hospital. He somehow got out of his leg shackles en route and then bolted when a guard opened a door in the van.

Mr. Carvery, who was awaiting trial on charges including attempted murder and hostage-taking, evaded capture until last week in Niagara Falls, Ont.

Prison guards across Nova Scotia have refused to escort prisoners since the escape, saying they are undertrained and don’t have the proper tools to protect themselves and the public.

The health and safety committee says Nova Scotia is the only province where correctional staff don’t have some type of intermediate weapon.

A workplace inspection report, also issued Monday, says the Justice Department’s evaluation of intermediate weapon use in other provinces is incomplete.

The report also called the government evaluation "misleading" because it said oleoresin capsicum, a weapon similar to pepper spray, can’t be used in hospitals. The report said Nova Scotia sheriffs already carry the spray in medical facilities.

NDP justice critic Bill Estabrooks said Justice Minister Cecil Clarke has been reluctant to listen to front-line workers. "Correctional officers certainly should feel vindicated," Mr. Estabrooks said in a phone interview. "It’s always interesting when one department intervenes and tells another department how they should be handling their employees. To the Department of Labour’s credit, they’ve done the right thing."

Mr. Gosse said the union has been pushing for additional training and weapons for 2½ years. "You need the tools and equipment to do the job," he said. "To me, this only makes sense. This isn’t rocket science."

Mr. Gosse said he’s not worried about Taser use. He said guards will be held accountable if they use the controversial stun guns improperly.

Tasers may be necessary when escorting the most dangerous prisoners, Mr. Gosse said. He noted that when police officers escorted prisoners earlier this year, they were equipped with guns.

The government order is legally binding, but the Justice Department can appeal. Justice officials were not immediately available for comment Wednesday evening. A news release said the department is reviewing the report and compliance order. Both have been posted at correctional facilities throughout the province.

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