Province sees jail issues

Colton Davies

B.C.'s Solicitor General Mike Farnworth made his first visit to the Okanagan Correctional Centre in Oliver on Friday, and he said he's working to address various issues the prison has faced. 

Violence has plagued the institute, highlighted by three inmates who sued the prison last year. 

The Ministry of Public Safety said there were eight assaults on staff in 2017 at the prison and 94 inmate-on-inmate assaults.

Farnworth acknowledged the issue of violence and said measures are being taken to improve safety for staff and other inmates.

He also said the assault incidents aren't exclusive to the prison in Oliver, but rather the issue is systemic. 

"Violence issues occur in any corrections facility, not just here... It's something that we take very seriously and something we want to minimize," Farnworth said.

He added the "nature of the population" can be attributed to violence.

"We know, for example, some of the causes here in the Okanagan are because many of the inmates know each other... And if there are grudges and issues being brought in from the outside, it makes it slightly more challenging."

There were also 153 incidents of contraband drugs and 21 incidents of contraband weapons.

Farnworth said new body-scanning technology has "dropped it significantly," in regards to the amount of contraband getting into prisons. 

One other issue is recruiting and retaining correctional officers — which the B.C. Government Employees Union has voiced concerns about

Correctional officers in federal facilities make about $17,000 more per year than those in provincial facilities, according to the BCGEU.

"There is a discrepancy, and contracts have been negotiated by previous governments... We know that bargaining is going to be taking place in the not-too-distant future, and my expectation is this will be dealt with," Farnworth said

The ratio of officers to inmates has reached one-to-60 at the prison — something Farnworth said is being addressed between the province and the B.C. Government Employees Union.

Dean Purdy, vice president of Corrections and Sheriff Services for the BCGEU, said the officer-to-inmate ratio used to be capped at one-to-20, and a second officer was added any time the number of inmates surpassed that in a living unit.

He said the ratio was changed to one-to-45 in 2002, and "now that's even gone by the wayside," adding the ratio has reached as high as one-to-72 in one provincial corrections facility. 

Purdy said having a proper ratio of officers to inmates results in better interactions between the two sides and less tension.

"Now that those numbers are higher... It's more difficult to have that. Studies show, in situations where you have crowding, you just have more violence." 

Purdy confirmed he'll be meeting soon with Farnworth, which he said he's looking forward to.

"(This government) inherited a lot of this mess from the previous government, so we're hoping we can make some headway and real positive changes to make our correctional officers more safe."

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