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Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Nova Scotia Justice Department complies with order for weapons for jail officers

June 24, 2008
The Canadian Press

HALIFAX — The Nova Scotia Justice Department will provide weapons and training for corrections officers who escort prisoners on trips outside of jails, Justice Minister Cecil Clarke announced Tuesday.

Clarke told a hastily called news conference that his department was following through on a workplace order from the provincial Labour Department that had set June 24 as a deadline for a response.

"We will proceed with the ability to use pepper spray as well as batons," said Clarke.

However, the minister said guards would not be issued stun guns. "Tasers are off the table. There is no protocol in place with regards to that," said Clarke, noting that a review of stun gun use by police officers is currently underway.

"When we move forward, that review should establish protocols and procedures but I don't see a need or requirement to have that (Tasers) within the corrections environment."

Training programs for guards on prisoner escort duty will be put in place immediately in consultation with their union officials.

The hope is that they can be completed through the summer and fall. The delay is not sitting well with Jim Gosse, president of the union local that represents guards at the province's five correctional facilities. "We fully anticipated that the employer would reach a common-sense decision and provide correctional officers with the use of intermediate weapons," he said in a phone interview from Cape Breton.

But Gosse said the minister's time frame for implementation, pending training, doesn't make sense because several guards are already schooled in the use of pepper spray and batons. "We believe that there are enough individuals already in the system that this employer could put together specialized teams that already have the knowledge and the know-how to facilitate safe and efficient escorts," he said.

Gosse said he's left wondering if the delay is a form of payback for having forced the issue. "Because our members stepped forward and identified a serious occupational safety hazard in the workplace, it appears they're being penalized. Waiting (for months) to get what they need is not acceptable."

Because of limited staffing and hours of availability, Sheriff Services will continue to handle prisoner escorts at the Antigonish and Cumberland correctional facilities until new jails are built. The Labour Department issued the order earlier this month after unionized guards refused to do prisoner escorts citing safety reasons. Liberal justice critic Michel Samson said it has taken a long time for the government to address an obvious problem. "You'd be hard pressed to find any Nova Scotian who doesn't believe that the minister made a poor decision on this and had to be dragged screaming and kicking on what was an obvious safety issue for the guards," he said.

The Liberals are also pushing Clarke to broaden the scope of his stun gun review to include the use of sidearms. Samson said other provinces have seen fit to arm their guards with guns while escorting prisoners. "In light of all the reviews that the minister has undertaken, we certainly believe that that should be added to one of the existing reviews as an option," he said. "Nova Scotians are seeing more and more violent crimes out there which means more and more violent inmates."

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