New high-security Okanagan facility to monitor drastic increase in B.C. prison violence

Violent incidents against prison staff went up almost 40 percent in 2015 compared to 2014

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      A government union is claiming that violence by inmates against staff in B.C. prisons jumped 39 percent in 2015.

      On March 31, members of the B.C. Government and Service Employees’ Union (BCGEU) met with Solicitor General and Minister of Public Safety Mike Morris to discuss the increase in assaults in the province’s prisons.

      In total, all incidents of violence against staff and inmates increased by 42 percent last year compared to the year before, according to a BCGEU release.

      BCGEU vice president Dean Purdy said violence levels—both inmate-on-inmate violence and inmate-on-officer—rose to an all-time high of 1,394 in 2015, based on B.C. Corrections Branch statistics.

      “They're more than 30-percent higher than any other year, so that's a big concern for us,” Purdy said in a phone interview with the Georgia Straight.

      The Straight recently reported that there were 893 incidents of prison violence in 2014, according to B.C. Corrections Branch.

      In a separate telephone interview, Morris said that once the $200-million high-security Okanagan Correctional Centre (OCC) opens near Oliver in early 2017, his government will monitor  violence levels once that prison population is in place.

      Purdy agreed with that agenda: “We think after six months would be a good period of time [to monitor],” he said.

      Morris said statistics on violence levels that have recently been distributed do not take into consideration that 800 cells have been added in corrections centres around the province since 2008.

      “If we increase the number of cells, we will probably be increasing the number of incidents that are reported,” he said. The new facility will add 378 cells, effectively doubling correctional capacity in B.C.'s Interior.

      Morris added that each violent incident is investigated and actions are taken against the perpetrator or instigator when it is reported. “Every prisoner, when they’re admitted into any of the regional correctional centres in the province, have a complete review done on them to make sure they’re compatible with the surroundings,” he said. Morris added that there are a number of strategies to mitigate any violence-related issues.

      BCGEU president Stephanie Smith said she thinks the union has a long way to go to persuade Morris that the issue of prison violence is a very serious one. “I'm not sure he's fully convinced,” she said by phone. “This is about violent assaults, both inmate-on-inmate and inmate-on-staff.”

      Purdy said the assaults on officers are "a very real thing".

      “Some of them are really disgusting and degrading,” he said, adding that officers have, in the past, had urine and feces thrown at them.

      Purdy stressed the importance of having two officers in every unit as opposed to the current practice of only one. In some correctional centres, the ratio is one officer to every 72 inmates; in others, are one to every 64. As recently as 2001, according to the BCGEU, units contained one officer for every 20 inmates.

      Morris said the new OCC is a “state of the art" facility, and although there might be only one corrections officer physically present who is responsible for overseeing each living unit, there will also be individuals responsible for electronic monitoring, as well as staff, supervisors, and medical personnel checking units on a routine basis.

      “To say that we’ve only got one individual in a living unit is a bit misleading,” he said.

      Morris said that if violent incidents go up once the OCC is open early next year, they will figure out how to address it then.

      Purdy and Smith both said they brought up inmates' mental-health issues with Morris, with Purdy saying that at least 30 percent of inmates have mental-health issues and that a lot of violence stems from the unstable conditions in B.C.'s prisons.

      “Inmates with mental-health issues are put under onerous conditions inside a maximum-security jail,” he said. “They're going to act out without proper [mental-health] treatment or proper medical readily available.”

      Smith agreed. “The prison system is just becoming a default for [outside] mental health and addiction [treatment],” she said.

      Morris didn't dispute Purdy's 30-percent figure but added that he doesn't think it represents a large increase in the actual number of inmates with mental-health issues.

      “I don’t believe, based on my own experience, that the number of people with mental illnesses has gone up," he said. "I just think we’ve done a much better job over the last decade of diagnosing it.”

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