B.C. prisons are growing more dangerous, both for inmates and guards, a union has claimed.
Minister of Public Safety and Solicitor General Mike Morris recently dismissed safety concerns for the provinces’ correctional centres, despite new statistics that suggest the opposite.
“Safety is not an issue in any of the correctional centres that we have in B.C.," the Liberal MLA for Prince George-Mackenzie said during question period in the legislature last Thursday (March 17).
But violent incidents have increased, according to the B.C. Government and Service Employees’ Union (BCGEU), which represents guards in B.C. A March 17 media release states there were 893 incidents of prison violence in 2014 and, the following year, 953 up until the end of September.
BCGEU president Stephanie Smith and vice president Dean Purdy are scheduled to meet with Morris next week to discuss the issue.
In a telephone interview, Smith said she strongly disagrees with Morris's statement. “We're going to be raising our concerns about his government's view that safety is not a problem,” she added.
Smith said one thing she and Purdy will be discussing is the issue of staff-to-inmate ratios. At Surrey Pretrial, there are 72 inmates for every one guard, Smith noted. At Okanagan Correctional Centre, which has yet to open, there will also be only one officer for every 72 inmates. At other correctional centres, the situation is only marginally better, she continued, where the ratio is one guard to 64 inmates.
“At one time on a living unit, it was one to 20,” Smith continued. She attributed a rise in assaults on both officers and inmates as likely due to the ratio change.
In a telephone interview, Mike Farnworth, NDP MLA for Port Coquitlam and Opposition critic for public safety, said it is “ridiculous” that Morris feels prison safety is not an issue.
“It's about a government that's just lost touch with reality,” he said. “It's just outrageous that a government would say safety in prisons is not an issue because the facts show otherwise it is an issue."
Farnworth noted there have been at least 13 assaults on staff so far this year at the Surrey Pretrial Centre, compared to 24 incidents total in 2015.
Smith argued mental-health concerns also need to be addressed, suggesting there has to be a “holistic approach”, starting in the community with social services, services for families in crisis, and youths in crisis.
“We need to provide supports before they become part of the prison system,” she said.
The Ministry of Public Safety and Solicitor General did not make a representative available for an interview.
Jennifer Metcalfe is executive director of Prisoners’ Legal Services (PLS). In a seperate interview, she agreed with Smith, but emphasizing that increasing the number of security staff is not the only answer.
“They [inmates] should have someone who can treat them like humans and with dignity and give them an opportunity to interact and participate in dialectical behaviour therapy if that's appropriate,” she said. “Or doing programs to help them to learn with their mental disability.”
Metcalfe maintained inmate violence will increase the more security response there is.
“If we look at the cases of our clients where security officers use force to try to control them, they're really just escalating,” she said.
Metcalfe went on to say that solitary confinement is often used to keep people with mental disabilities separate from other people.
“I don't think that does anything to improve the overall safety of prisons,” she said. “I think it does more damage to people and can lead to more incidents of violence, including self-harm.”
Metcalfe added that in a number of cases she has seen through her work for PLS, solitary confinement traumatizes people and makes them fearful.
“That's when you end up damaging someone to the point where they have no control and then they might act out or self-harm and commit suicide,” she explained.
In a January 2015 report by the B.C. Civil Liberties Association, it states negative long-term effects of solitary confinement include psychosis, hallucinations, insomnia, and confusion.
“Solitary confinement can create mental illness where none previously existed, or exacerbate pre-existing illness,” the document reads. The report adds damaging effects of solitary confinement increase the longer the prisoner is kept isolated and can seriously hinder a prisoner’s rehabilitation.
Metcalfe stressed the importance of proper therapeutic units and mental health support in order to eliminate violence in prisons.
Smith said that's something she hopes to address with the minister at their meeting next week.
“Where does he see his government going there?” she said.
Follow Jocelyn Aspa on Twitter @jocelynaspa