By Dale Boyd
The 378-cell South Okanagan Correctional Centre (OCC) was billed as a facility help ease the pressure on correctional officers and overpopulation of inmates in the province — years later the union representing those officers is saying that vision never came to fruition.
“We heard that too. That hasn’t been the case. The violence levels speak for themselves. The statistics are un-refutable and the staff that work there, the correctional officers who work on the front lines, not only at the OCC but the other nine jails around the province, are frustrated and fed up,” said Dean Purdy, chair of the sheriff and corrective services component of the BC Government and Service Employees’ Union (BCGEU).
Purdy spoke to the Oliver Chronicle over the phone from Vancouver Monday, where he was in the midst of arbitration talks taking place between the union and the province. Meanwhile, correctional officers and staff rallied with pizza and coffee outside of the OCC, speaking out for their safety on Monday morning.
It is the fifth rally held at provincial correctional centres across B.C., with more planned in the near future.
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A vicious assault on an officer took place in February 2018 landing the inmate responsible, Jeffery Polanski, a two-year jail sentence. Afshin Ighani is facing charges for allegedly stabbing two fellow inmates as well.
“Violence levels are on the rise at all seven maximum-security jails and the OCC is no different,” Purdy said.
Twenty assaults on correctional officers took place at OCC in 2018 and “those are the ones that go reported, often they go unreported.”
“There was 124 total assaults against correctional officers across the province in 2018, which is an all-time high, so it is a big concern for us. One of the things we are looking for is we want to see two correctional officers for each living unit,” Purdy said.
On average one correctional officer is present per 72 inmates, according to the BCGEU. Other provinces including Ontario, Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba have an officer-to-inmate ratio of two correctional officers per 40 inmates.
However, one officer supervising an area with 60 to 72 inmates does “not at all reflect reality,” according to an email response from BC Corrections Monday, which was not attributed to an author.
“The scenario of any correctional centre being full to capacity, requiring two individuals in every cell, is extremely unlikely,” the email states.
Citing an “in-depth analysis” in 2016, BC Corrections says a vast majority of staff assaults occurred with “just one or two inmates present, or involved an individual who was locked in their cell at the time.”
“Typically a situation where that individual threw something at a staff member through the meal hatch. This demonstrates that ratios do not change inmate behaviour or prevent violence.”
Changes to classification and case management are needed, creating specific units for inmates who have a history of violence or challenging behaviour, BC Corrections stated.
“As well, health care and mental health professionals, Aboriginal liaison workers and other service providers have frequent, regular interactions with incarcerated individuals in the living units,” the statement continued. “Our staff is our greatest resource and we are committed to supporting them and ensuring them the safest work environment possible.”
The NDP government has inherited the staffing issues which were started under the BC Liberals, according to Purdy, when the Liberals of the day removed the legislative cap of one correctional officer per 20 inmates in 2001. The Liberals championed the public-private-partnership (PPP) undergone to build the South Okanagan prison, which was also billed as a fix for staffing numbers and double-bunked inmates. BC Corrections said in a statement in 2017 that the OCC will increase safety across all 10 province-run facilities by providing more inmate housing options.
According to Purdy talks are going well with the union and Minister of Public Safety and Solicitor General Mike Farnworth.
“He’s been very receptive to our suggestions. We have some good suggestions on how we can better manage the inmates because really the demographic and the profile of the inmates we have in custody has changed dramatically over the last 10 years,” Purdy said. “We have more violent inmates. We have more inmates with mental health issues and substance abuse. It’s a big challenge for us.”
There are always costs associated with increased staffing, but not in the way most people think, Purdy said.
“We have approximately 200 staff to work at the OCC. So, we’re not doubling the number of officers at the OCC. What we’re are doing is we would need an additional 10 to 20 officers to cover a double staffing need at OCC and at other jails,” Purdy said.
Recruitment and retention of officers is another challenge, with uncompetitive wages compared to other law enforcement jobs.
“The OCC if they could would hire 30 more officers right now just to get back to where they need to be from a staffing standpoint because like the rest of the jails in B.C., they are running huge amounts of overtime just to meet their needs,” Purdy said.