A female Kent prison guard viciously slashed by an inmate went public last week to highlight safety concerns at the maximum-security institution.
“It’s not just my safety, but the safety of all the staff at the institution,” the 42-year-old correctional officer — who asked that only her initials C.W. be used in this story — said in an interview with The Progress.
Gord Robertson, Pacific region president of the Union of Canadian Correction Officers, called prison guards like C.W. the “unsung heroes” of Canada’s judicial system, working in a dangerous place where no one else wants to go.
Yet the union still meets with “resistance” from prison management when it raises staff safety concerns, he said.
The union had to go outside the correctional system to get the plastic disposable razors banned that it’s believed was used in the June 23 attack on C.W.
The Human Resources and Development agency found prison management had “failed to protect” its employees, and the double-edged “safety” razors, which had been issued free to inmates, were finally banned and replaced by a much smaller razor.
A Kent prison spokesman did not return repeated phone calls for comment on steps the institution is taking to address safety concerns.
C.W. said on the day of the attack she was near the end of her shift, talking to a junior officer, when an inmate approached her with a piece of paper, like he was going to ask her to explain something written on it.
Nothing unusual in that, she said, as inmates routinely ask guards for help with documents or letters, and she had no apprehension at all as the inmate approached her.
“As I looked down, he slashed my face and took off running toward his cell,” she said. “It felt like my whole face split open, and instantly there was just tons of blood.”
C.W. was immediately whisked to the first aid room, and the entire prison locked down.
It was later determined that C.W. had suffered an 18-cm slash so deep it sliced an artery and cut into her jawbone. She lost three litres of blood after the attack and was airlifted to Royal Columbian Hospital in New Westminster for life-saving surgery.
Despite the trauma, and the prospect of five years of plastic surgery, C.W. said she intends to return to her career as a correctional officer.
“I love my job,” she said. “I enjoy working with inmates.”
But she also wants to do what she can to create a safe environment for all the staff working at federal prisons, from guards to chaplains and healthcare workers.
Robertson said the inmate who attacked C.W. had made earlier threats against staff, but these reports had somehow not reached the unit where the attack eventually took place.
This “communications gap” is still an outstanding union concern, he said.
But there are also questions about why the inmate was returned to the prison’s general population, after he had been removed for assessment.
“He basically carried out what he threatened to do,” Robertson said, apparently using a blade from a double-edged razor.
“It’s easy to turn into a weapon,” Robertson explained, by popping out the blade and melting it onto the handle of a plastic toothbrush, making a formidable-looking weapon that has long been a staff concern.
A smaller “safety” razor has now been issued to inmates, but it could still be used as a weapon, and the union is asking why electric razors of some sort are not issued to fully protect staff.
Robertson said an attack on a woman would once have been unthinkable under the “inmates’ code,” but those days are long gone.
“They don’t care who they attack,” he said. “They are ruthless.”
And the union is asking management to listen more to staff input on safety issues.
“We want to find solutions,” Robertson said. “We want them to take staff safety seriously.”
And if the public knows the risks the guards face, he added, perhaps they will contact their local MP for support.