Jail guards fired including local union president, grievances filed for wrongful dismissal

At a news conference today, Sarnia jail union president Dave Esser told reporters that he and several other guards were wrongfully fired last week for allegedly using unjustified, excessive force against prisoners.

Esser, flanked by colleagues and some of his supporters, held a press conference today and vehemently defended himself and three others who were fired last week. He contends that management is purposely thinning out the number of jail guards at the local facility hoping that the moves will force the jail’s closure ahead of schedule.

Ontario’s correctional services ministry announced last year that Sarnia Jail would be closed by 2014 and inmates would be moved to a new jail being built in Windsor. Esser said that despite correctional officers’ powers under the Criminal Code of Canada to use force if necessary “to control those in our jails and correctional institutions,” those rights have slowly been eroded over the past several years.

“At this time after every use of force, no matter how minor, the inmate is asked by management if they wish to lay charges against the correctional officer.”

Esser’s firing allegedly stems from two uses of force incidents that both happened last August, a week apart, when in the first incident he said he was protecting a nurse from a prisoner who reached out from inside his cell to grab the nurse. Esser said he tried to deflect the prisoner by reaching toward him to which the prisoner took a weapon from his person and swung it at Esser slicing open his left eye.

He said in the second incident, he had let a prisoner out of his cell who in turn warned Esser that he was going to assault him then proceeded to do so.

Esser defended himself and said that the inmate had no injuries whatsoever. He added that after the incident for almost an hour, the inmate mocked him and bragged about how little force was used on him. A week after the second incident, Esser was suspended for excessive use of force. “In 26 years as a correctional officer I have never been accused of excessive force,” said Esser.

In response to the recent firings and his assertion that the ministry has taken away correction officers’ rights to defend themselves, Esser in his role as union president made five demands today to the Minister of Corrections:

  • The ministry of correctional services will no longer encourage, recommend, or suggest to an inmate to charge an officer with assault.
  • The police will not be called unless an officer or inmate asks for them to be called.
  • All restrictions concerning the type of force used be removed except those referring to medical issues.
  • Management and the union set up a committee in each institution to deal with use of force issues.
  • We want the CISU, which is the Correctional Investigative and Security Unit, to be eliminated and investigations to be run by SIU through the Attorney General’s office with none of the current CISU investigators being used.

Esser compared the ministry’s CISU to “secret police.” The local union and community group Save the Sarnia Jail committees have maintained they would win the fight to keep the local jail open, but Esser said he is now losing hope.

All four employees who were terminated have filed grievances, which will be heard in the next two months, Esser said. Esser said some, including himself, are considering civil lawsuits for wrongful dismissal. There are currently just over 40 workers at Sarnia Jail, but Esser says he expects more suspensions soon, further reducing guard numbers and creating safety issues.

He said that before management’s alleged efforts to shut the jail down started, the local jail employed as many as 60 guards. Today, he called for the transfer of jail superintendent Ken Fitzgerald to another corrections facility. “We need better labour relations to straighten out some of this,” Esser said.

Ontario’s Ombudsman, Andre Marin, said last August he would be investigating the use of excessive force in jails province-wide, after receiving more than 100 complaints.

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