By Lyonel Doherty
Despite the latest technology and surveillance, violence and contraband will always find their way inside a prison.
And the correctional centre in Oliver is no exception.
A report from BC Corrections sheds light on what has been going on behind those prison walls. While many positive rehabilitation/work programs are assisting inmates in their reintroduction to society, the not-so-positive is rearing its ugly head.
For example, from January to June of this year, there were 29 incidents of inmate-on-inmate assaults at the Okanagan Correctional Centre (OCC).
There were also five incidents of inmate-on-staff assaults. These assaults are defined as any violent incident that ends in some degree of intentional physical contact or force, such as throwing items, spitting, scratching, pushing or hitting.
Correctional centres track every incident of violence, including those with no physical contact and those that may result in no injuries.
According to BC Corrections, the top priority is the safety of its staff, the community and the inmates in custody.
BC Corrections says it does not tolerate violent incidents, and each one is reviewed and (where appropriate) reported to police.
When asked how often the Oliver RCMP are dispatched to the prison, Sgt. Blaine Gervais referred the question to facility management.
BC Corrections said not all incidents at the prison result in police involvement. Staff will call the RCMP if there is a significant amount of contraband found or if there are trafficking concerns.
The RCMP attend the facility for other reasons, including investigations, taking fingerprints or collecting DNA samples.
Inmates in Oliver are housed in living units appropriate to their risk assessments, and staffing levels are set accordingly.
Security measures, building design, information-sharing, and staffing models all contribute to the safe management of inmates and the protection of staff.
Correctional officers are supported at all times by other officers and supervisors present in the living units, as well as by control room officers via surveillance.
This technology, in the form of cameras and personal alarms, allow staff to respond to a call for help within seconds.
But violence is not the only thing that correctional officers have to contend with.
Since January, there have been 76 incidents involving contraband drugs and 15 incidents involving weapons at the centre.
These numbers represent all incidents of confirmed and/or suspected contraband, including incidents where contraband was not necessarily found.
These incidents also represent contraband that was intercepted before entering the secure perimeter.
Besides the violence and contraband, the correctional centre has also been subject to lawsuits filed by inmates.
One prisoner is alleging that he was assaulted by a correctional officer during an incident in his cell. Another inmate, reportedly in protective custody, claims that a guard was incompetent by leaving a gate or door unlocked, resulting in another inmate allegedly stabbing him.
A spokesman for the Ministry of Public Safety and Solicitor General said BC Corrections does not comment on matters that are before the courts.
“It is important to note that these allegations have not been proven in court.”
The official said officers have extensive training in de-escalation skills and strive to resolve matters by using communication rather than force as their first response at all times.
It was noted that mental health professionals, aboriginal liaison workers and other professionals have frequent and regular interactions with inmates in the living units.
But a spokesman for the BCGEU (BC Government Employees’ Union) said correctional officer safety is a concern.
Dean Purdy, chair of corrections for the BCGEU, stated that the Oliver facility’s “honeymoon phase” is over and the last couple of months have represented a real concern to the union because of the assaults.
According to Purdy, there is one officer per living unit, which currently accommodates a maximum of 58 inmates.
“That’s a concern for us,” he said, adding that the facility could reach a maximum of 72 inmates per unit.
Purdy said there is a correlation between high inmate counts and an increase in violence. He also noted that 60 per cent of the inmate population has issues with mental health and substance abuse.
Purdy said the BCGEU would like to see lower inmate-to-officer ratios, the way it used to be. The union would also like a return to the single bunk cell, direct supervision model. This avoids the situation of too many inmates in living units, which creates a confined space and intimidation for workers, Purdy pointed out.
In response to the ratio concern, BC Corrections said because of the complex logistics in operating a correctional centre, “we do not have living units on a fixed ratio” due to the fact that staffing is highly flexible.