Part 2 in a four-part series
When she was a corrections officer, Susan Clarkin says an eight-hour shift was about all she could manage.
The volunteer 12-hour shifts were too long and she'd start losing her patience, so she didn't do them often.
Correctional officers in this province sometimes work 24 hours straight.
Clarkin is now an instructor at Holland College's corrections officer training program in P.E.I., and says it's easier to prepare recruits to work in antiquated prisons than it is to prepare them for 24-hour shifts.
"At the end of the day, you're just mentality and physically exhausted ... 24 hours, that's outrageous," she says. "There's such a high turnover ... there's a high burnout rate. Something like that would be very hard to overcome."
One of the most strongly worded recommendations from the Decades of Darkness report into this province's correctional system was about 24-hour shifts. The report called for the immediate end to the practice due to potential liability issues, describing it as "totally unacceptable."
But correctional officers at many facilities are still working those shifts.
"To believe that someone can function at any appropriate level after working 16 hours straight is not realistic," the report says.
According to the panel that wrote the report, the Justice Department could be held liable if staff were working 24-hour shifts and something happened in prison and they reacted inappropriately, or even if they had a car accident on the way home.
When the report was released last year, the only facility that didn't have correctional officers working 24-hour shifts was the West Coast Correctional Centre in Stephenville, where shifts were extended by four hours when necessary and the next shift would be called in early.
According to Justice Minister Felix Collins, the practice has been "reduced significantly" as a result of the report's recommendations.
"They have not been reduced entirely, for the simple reason that they come up. ... If something happens in the penitentiary and they haven't got the people to come in, you have people in 24-hour shifts. That will be relieved considerably in the future," Collins said, explaining that 52 new on-call correctional officers have been trained and hired.
The government is in the process of hiring 12 more officers - six men, six women - and a class of 27 officers who graduated last week have also been hired.
"Certainly, once you go beyond 12 hours, nobody is as effective as they could be," Collins says.
The justice minister said once staffing levels are stable, 24-hour shifts may be eliminated completely.
The province is required by law to have a certain number of female officers working at each of the province's facilities, since it has been determined that having staff of both genders provides a better living and working environment. That requirement contributes to the number of 24-hour shifts being worked, since if a certain number of women aren't available in an emergency, others have to work the longer shifts.
The Justice Department has been investigating ways to promote corrections as a career choice for women.
The Decades of Darkness report raised other issues about correctional officers' working conditions, but some of them, including the use of seniority, will have to wait until the officers' union negotiates a new collective agreement.
Many of the report's recommendations will be resolved with the new hires. The Justice Department has also provided training in mental health, autism awareness, officer safety, criminal intelligence and institutional emergency response.
Safety measures have been put in place for staff at all institutions - including issuing stab-resistant vests and collapsible batons for outside escorts - and the department is reviewing corrections culture to create a better work environment.
Bill Ranson, an addictions services co-ordinator with the John Howard Society, says the improvements for correctional officers has had a spillover effect on the prisoners he works with.
"There's some people there now who do see a different atmosphere there and I think the word to use is hope. ... (Officers had) been given a voice through the process of doing the report and people were listening to them ...," Ranson says.
"That was a tremendous thing, a very powerful thing for them."
Back in P.E.I., Clarkin says she'd like to see more done for correctional officers, and not just in this province.
"I think corrections is a line of work where people should have more time off, more sick days than regular-Joe-type jobs, but again, that's in a perfect world."
Training to become a correctional officer includes spending time in a simulated prison, sometimes with hired actors playing inmates. Recruits tour federal and provincial prisons, do on-the-job training and discuss coping methods.
"We can only do so much," Clarkin says. "We just outline the different kinds of institutions, where the newer styles are mostly geared towards family-unit living or direct supervision - where the officers are actually living in there with the offenders, and we instruct them how to manage that type of unit, but we also keep ... saying, 'You know, not all the institutions have come up to this.'"
When new graduates are hired, there is more training at the specific facility, Clarkin explained.
The largest class on record is going through the training program now.
"We tell them it's a difficult job," she says.
"We repeat that day in and day out. It's not for everyone, and pretty much we tell the students that if you're not really serious about being correctional officers, then it's not for you. Because it's not just you go and make your cookies for the morning-type thing."
Prisoners have been asking for ways to improve themselves for years. The province has been saying for years it's going to make the system better for prisoners. Who's learning what?