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Correctional officers take part in a strike at the Edmonton Remand Centre on Saturday April 27, 2013. (Ben Lemphers/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Correctional officers take part in a strike at the Edmonton Remand Centre on Saturday April 27, 2013. (Ben Lemphers/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Alberta corrections strike threatens to spread after sheriffs decide to join Add to ...

A wildcat strike by provincial correctional officers stemming from concerns about conditions in a new Edmonton mega-jail is threatening to spread as some sheriffs who provide court security and prisoner escorts said they would join in as of Monday.

In the face of labour unrest, the Redford government is girding for a difficult week, but insists the justice system will still function. It has taken the rare step of summoning RCMP officers from British Columbia and Saskatchewan to help staff jails and courtrooms.

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“This is all at a very significant cost to the taxpayer for what is clearly illegal job action,” Alberta Justice Minister and Solicitor-General Jonathan Denis said Sunday.

Correctional officers at 10 facilities across the province have walked off the job over the past three days, and depending on the facility, inmates may be confined to their cells more than normal, Mr. Denis said. The RCMP and some provincial managers have already stepped in to staff the facilities.

The Alberta Labour Relations Board issued an emergency return-to-work order on Saturday, which many ignored. Government officials note the action comes in the middle of a collective bargaining process and said they won’t negotiate with anyone who takes illegal job action. They insisted Sunday that more than a dozen officers have returned to work despite “union pressure tactics.” But the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees (AUPE) said there’s no sign of its picketing members backing down.

“Never before in our membership have we seen such mass solidarity in such a short period of time,” said Clarke McChesney, chair of AUPE Local 003, which represents provincial correctional peace officers and sheriffs.

Mr. McChesney said some sheriffs in Edmonton and Calgary have decided to strike in solidarity, and noted that more of his members – including probation officers and commercial vehicle enforcement officers – are keeping a close eye on the situation.

“We had to do this,” he said. “It’s hard to blame anybody for standing up and saying something.”

Mr. McChesney, while not in control of striking workers, backs their actions. He said he hopes the issues can be resolved and he’s also looking for the government to give “full amnesty” to staff who raised safety concerns or who walked off the job.

The government issued a news release on Sunday saying it wanted to work with correctional officers to facilitate their “safe return to work.” However, Mr. Denis said amnesty is “not something that’s on the table at this point.”

The massive new, state-of-the-art Edmonton Remand Centre that opened earlier this month was the catalyst of the job action that began Friday. The $580-million facility meant to hold people charged and awaiting trial can house almost 2,000 inmates. It replaces an overcrowded downtown Edmonton remand centre built in 1979. The new remand centre features a biometrics system and almost 1,500 cameras to keep a close watch on prisoners. Most family visits and court appearances will be done by teleconference, and an on-site health clinic means fewer transports outside. The new facility is also built around a “direct supervision” management system, which sees correctional officers working face-to-face with inmates, and not separated by windows or walls. But the union raised safety concerns about the facility in the lead up to its opening, and filed a formal complaint two weeks ago. The situation boiled over Friday when two guards, who had continued to raise the concerns, were suspended by the province. The afternoon shift then refused to report to work.

“I just don’t feel safe going back in there,” Erez Raz, an AUPE vice-president who works as a correctional officer at Edmonton Remand Centre, said Sunday. Mr. Raz said there are concerns about a lack of staff, the placement of inmates, the design of the buildings, and equipment installed that “could be used in a dangerous manner.” But said he wouldn’t go into further detail about the deficiencies for “security reasons.”

Deputy Premier Thomas Lukaszuk said the government would never put provincial employees in a position where their safety was threatened, and said the union has made other demands unrelated to remand centre safety. “This is an unusual behaviour … which I suggest has very little to do with health and safety.”

Other union officials have said the strike is also motivated by a range of other safety concerns across the province.

Follow on Twitter: @KellyCryderman

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