Inmate memorial crosses triggering for EMDC staff – The London Free Press
The 13 memorial crosses erected outside London’s jail – a daily reminder of death in their workplace – are taking a mental and emotional toll on employees, their union leader says.
But they’re “too hot of a political issue” for the province to touch, said Janet Laverty, president of Local 108 of the Ontario Public Services Employees Union.
“The staff at the Elgin-Middlesex Detention Centre (EMDC) understand and respect the needs of the families of those who have passed in our care. We respect the need to grieve, we respect the need for answers and we respect the need to demand change,” Laverty said.
But seeing the crosses and names of the dead inmates every day is triggering trauma, and causing mental health issues, especially to those who knew the inmates and those called upon to save their lives, Laverty said.
“I have had many members approach me regarding the impact they are experiencing seeing that reminder twice daily going to and from work. I share these concerns, as I myself have been a first responder to more then one of those incidents,” Laverty said in an email response to questions from The Free Press.
“Twice daily, I am forced to drive by the names of those I was involved with. I have experienced flash backs, I have experienced the anxiety and the emotional distress of re-living those incidents daily. These feelings and these PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder) symptoms are very real, and the longer we are exposed to that, the more we are re-traumatized, the harder it becomes to cope.”
Elgin-Middlesex Detention Centre (Free Press file photo)
Laverty said she’s tried more than once to discuss with jail administration the impact of the crosses and try to find a solution.
But administration is reluctant to do anything with the crosses because a class action lawsuit against the province over conditions at EMDC has made the issue too hot to handle, she said.
Laverty said she’s hoping somehow correctional staff, families and the province can work together to come up with a solution.
“I don’t know what the answer is,” she said.
Families, friends and supporters of 13 inmates who’ve died at EMDC since 2009 held a protest outside the jail June 3, and erected 13 crosses at the entrance to the property on Exeter Road.
“The ministry appreciates the impact that the crosses may have on staff that work at EMDC,” Community Safety and Correctional Services spokesperson Greg Flood said.
Staff can access an employee assistance program for counselling, Flood said.
But EMDC employees do not have a peer support system and are limited in what critical incident stress debriefing they receive, Laverty said.
Laverty said the administration of the jail has suggested the union contact London lawyer Kevin Egan, who represents hundreds of inmates, former inmates and their families in legal action against the province.
Families and supporters of the 13 inmates first gathered in Egan’s office in April to discuss how to raise public awareness of the conditions at EMDC.
Egan told The Free Press he’d be willing to arrange a meeting with family members and correctional representatives to talk about the crosses.
The families needed to raise the crosses to share their grief and remind everyone of what has been lost, he said.
Egan also expressed concern about the inmates who have watched death and assaults at EMDC, and are left without help of any kind.
But, he said, “I sympathize with those correctional officers who are bothered by the presence of the crosses. Over the years, I have met many correctional officers and nurses from EMDC. I have come to respect them and to understand that their job is a very difficult one, that they work in a stressful environment and that they are often not provided the tools and resources to do their jobs respectfully.”
Egan said he has approached the property manager about the creation of a permanent memorial at EMDC, one that might serve as a reminder of the inmates yet not trigger trauma.
“We would also leave space for the addition of other inmates’ names in the future but maintain deepest hope that such space forever remains unused,” he said in an email exchange.
I don’t know what the answer is
Laverty said she’d be willing to talk to her membership about a memorial.
The mothers of two inmates who died said they understand the impact of the crosses on staff, but insisted something must remind people to push for change at EMDC.
“It is for answers and accountability,” Janice Pigeau said. Her son James died in January.
“I do feel for the good guards because they have to work there,” said Judy Struthers, whose son Justin died in December. “But the good guards have to step up to the plate and demand changes.”
In a heartfelt statement provided to The Free Press, Laverty described how correctional officers and inmates, although always on opposite sides, have built rapport with each other.
“As correctional officers, correctional nurses, social workers etc, we have all interacted at some point or another with each of the individuals that passed. Some we have worked with since their first incarceration as a youth, and others as adults. We have played many roles during their incarceration time, from counsellor, to liaison, to advisors,” she said “And while there will forever be a divide between correctional officer and offender, a sense of basic respect is maintained. The deaths that have occurred in our institution since 2009 have impacted staff in many ways.”