TORONTO--(BUSINESS WIRE)--Chaplains providing spiritual care in Canadian federal prisons have taken the unusual step of applying for conciliation in their attempt to negotiate a first collective agreement with their employer.
The United Steelworkers union (USW) represents approximately 180 chaplains, from a variety of faiths and spiritual practices, who provide spiritual care to inmates in Correctional Services Canada (CSC) prisons. Since 2012, the federal government has outsourced the management of chaplaincy services to the private sector. Bridges of Canada, a subsidiary of Florida-based Bridges International, obtained the CSC contract in 2016.
Prison chaplains in B.C. and Ontario voted to join the USW in 2019. A national USW bargaining unit for chaplains was established soon after. Negotiations for a first collective agreement with Bridges of Canada began in February 2020.
In March, Bridges laid off all federal chaplains in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, at the direction of CSC. Chaplains have been forced to turn to government assistance programs for income support as a result.
Chaplains assert that the actions of CSC and Bridges have led to undue suffering and rising tensions within federal prisons. The right of prisoners to practise their religion is guaranteed by the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
“I can’t imagine a more stressful time for the incarcerated than right now,” said USW National Director Ken Neumann.
“If Canadians are feeling ‘imprisoned’ at home during the pandemic, imagine the mental and spiritual state of prisoners in conditions that don’t allow for physical distancing or visits from loved ones,” Neumann said.
“The current situation reflects a chaplaincy model that has been broken for some time,” said USW Representative Troy Lundblad. “It denies the important contributions chaplains make to the process of rehabilitation. This amounts to abandoning a stated goal of modern incarceration.”
Federal chaplains are employed on a contract basis and have not seen improvements to wages and working conditions since at least 2016, when Bridges obtained the CSC contract.
Chaplains are concerned about the future of chaplaincy in Canada’s prisons and the correctional system’s ability to attract and retain qualified and engaged chaplains.
“The precarious employment status of chaplains severely impacts the ability to build trust with prisoners and to be effective in bringing comfort to men and women with otherwise little spiritual resources,” said Lundblad.
“Chaplains are simply asking to be recognized for their role in the correctional system and for improved working conditions in line with other federal employees.”