Millhaven guards fear for safety: Convicts ‘more and more violent’

By Dawn Cuthbertson
Local News - Wednesday, November 03, 2004 @ 07:00

Guards fear more trouble after a spate of violence at maximum-security Millhaven penitentiary, including an attack on an officer by a rock-throwing prisoner.

The union representing prison guards says staff fear for their safety and question the way inmates are handlied.

A guard was hit in the back of the head with a large rock during a shift change Sunday afternoon. He wasn’t seriously injured.

“Things are going to escalate,” said Jason Godin, regional president of the Union of Correctional Officers. “It becomes a real concern.

“Generally when these types of things occur, it continues to lead up to something potentially bigger,” he said. “It’s no secret that inmates are becoming more and more violent.”

He said he doesn’t have any concrete information or inside knowledge indicating something is in the works.

Corrections Canada said a prison

riot squad fired tear gas into one cellblock last Thursday after inmates destroyed their living quarters and

refused to go into their cells for the night. “Picture a psychiatric patient in his room smashing tables and chairs,” said Godin.

A cellblock can hold up to 30 prisoners at a time. The institution currently houses 155 offenders and 253 people under assessment.

Godin said he was alarmed to learn that 17 homemade weapons were found last Tuesday when guards conducted a surprise search of one cellblock. Two other weapons we discovered hidden outside.

Picnic tables were set on fire sometime over the weekend too, he added.

“What we’re seeing at Millhaven is really nothing new,” Godin said.

An Alberta Supreme Court ruling last spring may have given Millhaven inmates a reason to feel they’re entitled to possess homemade weapons, he suggested.

The court ruled that Jason Richard Kerr, an inmate at a maximum-security prison in Edmonton, was not guilty of murdering another inmate and concealing two homemade knives in his pants because he was acting in self defence.

“Obviously we’re strongly opposed to that [decision],” Godin said. “How can we have convicted inmates inside our federal institutions continuing to commit crimes?”

Kerr had received death threats from the victim – who had reportedly used his status in a criminal gang to intimidate and assault fellow inmates – before the incident occurred Jan. 16, 2000, in the prison’s dining area.

Another concern at Millhaven is the lack of an elected inmate committee, often used as a forum to raise concerns with management, Godin said.

Guards are “always exposed and vulnerable when this type of situation arises,” he said, recalling the time last year when an inmate tried to stab an officer through a food slot.

“There’s regular assaults on our staff members.”

Godin added that gang activity is on the rise within the walls of Millhaven.

Inmates spend more time locked up in their cells and there’s an increase in “exceptional” weapon searches during times of unrest and heightened concern for guards’ safety, he said.

“When you’re finding that many weapons … it becomes a real concern for our members. Those are really the only precautions that have been taken so far.”

Tear gas was needed to break up a fight involving three inmates in the prison’s recreation room last Friday, said Diane Russon, a spokeswoman

for the Correctional Service of Canada.

“It’s paramount that the institution takes a look at [whether the incidents] are related,” she said.

“[Gas] can help disperse an area without injury.”

Russon said prison management is working with the guards on new security measures to ensure unarmed officers are no longer accessible to inmates during a shift change.

“Given the number of inmates that were in the [recreation] area, they weren’t able to identify who actually threw the rock.”

Prisoners can voice their concerns to four cellblock representatives until the next election of an inmate committee, Russon said.