Prison staff need support after trauma: former chaplain

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By Meagan Gillmore

A memorial erected earlier this year to commemorate inmates who have died while in custody at Elgin Middlesex Detention Centre (EMDC) in London, Ontario has renewed concerns about support systems available for staff at prisons.

Each of the 13 crosses outside the EMDC bear the name of an inmate who has died while in custody at there since 2009.

The crosses were put up in June.

They’ve also caused psychological pain for some staff. The London Free Press reported in July that seeing the memorial each day has made some re-live the deaths. Janet Laverty, president of Ontario Public Service Employees Union Local 108, the union representing the workers, told the newspaper members have approached her saying the frequent reminders of inmates who have died is harming their mental health, especially because some had good relationships with the deceased inmates.

Laverty declined an interview with Context.

The government, “appreciates the impact that the crosses may have on staff that work at EMDC,” Greg Flood, a spokesperson for the Ministry of Community Safety and Correctional Services said in an email statement to Context. The statement also mentioned that staff at EMDC have access to employee support programs.

Problems at Eglin Middlesex Detention Centre have made headlines for years. A class-action lawsuit against the province alleges that inmates’ constitutional rights have been violated at the centre, and is seeking compensation for neglect and assault, among other things.

“Everyone is concerned and would long for the day when there wouldn’t be a death in custody,” said Rebecca Howse, chair of the community advisory board for the EMDC.

The board prepares a report each year for the government that contains recommendations for improving the institution. The most recent public report, for 2016, called on the government to increase the number of staff who are trained in mental health, and to provide more physical activities for inmates.

Staffing has increased, said Howse, who has been on the EMDC board since 2013, “I see progress. “It’s moving in the right direction.”

Prison staff need emotional and spiritual support, says Rosemary Redshaw, executive director of New Life Prison Ministries and a former prison chaplain. The ministry, based in Cambridge, Ont., provides Bible studies and mentoring to inmates across Canada.

It can be, “difficult to maintain hope while working in prisons” Redshaw says. Retired now, she was a prison chaplain in various institutions throughout Ontario for 27 years.

“You’re trying to always look for the hope in the midst of what can be a very dark situation,” said Redshaw, noting most chaplains don’t stay in prisons for very long. “You’re working in the midst of a lot of injustices: whether it’s injustices that happen to the offender, or injustices that happen to the staff, or injustices of the corrections system itself. To be able to mentally cope with that can be very draining.”

Redshaw said she saw several staff who went out of their way to care for inmates, but she said she also saw staff suffer in their jobs. Some lost their senses of humour. Others who used to care for inmates began to look down on them. “Many of their marriages ended,” she said.

Supports for staff are often lacking, especially after a crisis. Redshaw was the chaplain at Grand Valley Institution for Women in Kitchener for 17 years. She was there when the institution opened, and also when Ashley Smith who died by self-inflicted strangulation on October 19, 2007, while under suicide watch.

“Everybody who was on shift when Ashley died were exceptional, exceptional officers,” said Redshaw. “Some have never recovered emotionally and will never be the same. They weren’t allowed to talk. There was an investigation going on and they needed to talk, they needed help. And there was no help for them.”

After Smith died, Redshaw’s job was to “keep the inmates stable,” she said. “That was for the staff. If I could keep them stable, I could keep the job of the staff easier.”

Staff often, “talk to chaplains because they want confidential support,” she said.

Redshaw says her Christian faith motivated her during her time as a prison chaplain.

“No matter how horrific the crime, you can always find the image of God in somebody. If you’re seeking that image, that gives you hope,” she said.

Chaplains can even have relationships with prisoners after they’re released, said Redshaw, but staff do not often get to see the progress.

Redshaw says she would encourage corrections staff to, “never give up hope in the change of a human being. Every human being has the possibility to change – and that’s not just inmates.”

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