Helping inmates acquire job and life skills during incarceration is prime focus,...

Helping inmates acquire job and life skills during incarceration is prime focus, says OCC’s warden

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Warden Steve diCastri and B.C. Solicitor General Mike Morris are surrounded by a colour guard at the opening ceremony for the new Okanagan Correctional Centre. (Keith Lacey photo)
Warden Steve diCastri and B.C. Solicitor General Mike Morris are surrounded by a colour guard at the opening ceremony for the new Okanagan Correctional Centre. (Keith Lacey photo)
Warden Steve diCastri and B.C. Solicitor General Mike Morris are surrounded by a colour guard at the opening ceremony for the new Okanagan Correctional Centre. (Keith Lacey photo)

Prisoners sentenced to do their time at the Okanagan Correctional Centre (OCC) won’t be able to complain about unsanitary conditions or not having anything to do during their time behind bars.

Steve DiCastri, the warden of the impressive new $200 million facility, took a dozen members of the media from across the South Okanagan on an extended tour of the facility Friday morning.

More than 3,000 members of the public had signed up to take similar tours that continued all day Friday, Saturday, Sunday and Monday and will wrap up this coming Saturday and Sunday.

DiCastri believes this is the first time in BC Corrections history that public tours have been offered at the opening of a new correctional facility.

During the tour, DiCastri made it very clear the primary goal for the 240 correctional officers who will work at the OCC is to keep inmates active and engaged and working on training and skills that will improve their lives and help them find work once their sentences are finished.

“We want them to get out of here with employability skills … that’s the plan anyways,” said DiCastri, who has worked in corrections for more than 30 years.

Every single inmate who has been given a jail sentence “must work” once they arrive at the OCC, said DiCastri.

Those who arrive on remand awaiting a court date aren’t allowed to work because they haven’t been convicted of any crime, he said.

Some of the jobs inmates can work at include growing food in the massive greenhouse that will grow almost all of the vegetables needed to feed inmates and staff as well as cleaning and maintenance, he said.

Those inmates who choose to take training in the metal or wood shop are also considered to be at work as they are trying to improve their potential job skills, he said.

Training is also offered for programs like operating forklift as well as first aid and working with hazardous materials training, he said.

If a prisoner refuses to work or access job training skills, they would lose up to five days per month in early release incentives, noting those sentenced in the provincial corrections system are released after having served two-thirds of their sentence, said DiCastri.

The vast majority of inmates enjoy the opportunity to go to work instead of sitting idle in their cells, he said.

“Most of them love to go to work … it really helps them to pass the time away,” he said.

Those inmates assessed as very low risk will be allowed to leave the facility during the day to work at various jobs in the community as BC Corrections has arranged work sharing programs with numerous employers in Oliver and across the region, said DiCastri.

Many of the prisoners at that level of incarceration have problems with addictions, DiCastri said. The facility will offer a full range of treatment programs.

After being sentenced by a judge to time that is “two years less a day,” prisoners arrive in a large indoor landing area and are then moved to the records area and given standard-issue, red-coloured tops and bottoms with their names attached, he said.

All prisoners must go through full body scanners to ensure they are not carrying any contraband.

Each prisoner is then classified for open, medium or secured custody and they will then be screened by medical staff for any medical or possible mental health issues, he said.

There are 378 cells inside the facility, including 11 for women and those cells are spread amongst three large pods.

A Pod will be ready to accept inmates when they first arrive January 15, with B Pod set to open in May and C Pod next July, he said.

The plan remains to have only one inmate per cell, but that could change depending on capacity issues at other facilities and most cells have the capability of housing two inmates, he said.

Each cell is roughly 9.5 feet by 7 feet and features two bunk beds and a toilet and stainless steel sink.

There is a separate two-floor Special Management Unit for prisoners with mental health issues as well as a separate segregation unit.

Most prisoners sent to segregation are for disciplinary reasons and DiCastri said he personally reviews case files each morning and decides which prisoners will be detained in segregation and for how long.

Inmates rise from bed at 7 a.m. and eat breakfast around 8 a.m. before dispersing to their assigned jobs, he said.

Dinner is served around 6:30 p.m. and “the entire facility goes into lock down at 10 p.m.”

Each pod has a central living area where inmates can play cards and socialize under the watchful eye of correctional officers on the floor and stationed and observation rooms above each pod.

There are also numerous rooms available for inmates to meet face-to-face with family members and friends as well as video services that allow them to speak with loved ones who can’t make it to the facility.

Prisoners earn $.150 to $4 per day and this allows them to purchase food and drink items in the canteen, he said.

The corrections industry has changed immensely over the past numerous years and the focus to help prisoners deal with their issues and access training and job skills is a giant step in the right direction, said DiCastri.

He expects when the facility is full by next summer that inmates will have provided more than 300,000 man-hours to the community in Oliver.

All of the food grown in the greenhouse that isn’t consumed by inmates and staff will be donated to food banks in Oliver and Osoyoos, he said.

KEITH LACEY

Aberdeen Publishing

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