Big prison, small community

A little over two years since B.C.’s biggest prison became fully operational, questions remain about the facility's impact on public safety for the communities of the South Okanagan.

The Okanagan Correctional Centre in Oliver became fully operational in July 2017, housing pre-trial inmates and mostly non-violent offenders serving provincial sentences less than two years in length.

Between opening and June 2019, the Ministry of Public Safety says an average of 117 inmates were released from OCC each month.

But where they end up after that is mostly a mystery and not tracked by BC Corrections, unless the released inmate is on probation.

“When an inmate is released, BC Corrections has no authority to require inmates to use a specific transportation service or to attend a specific location, nor can they prevent them from attending a specific location — unless it is a condition of a court-ordered probation order,” said the provincial government in response to a Freedom of Information Request by Castanet News.

According to Stats Canada, both Penticton and Oliver saw substantial increases to property crime rates in 2017 and 2018. In Penticton, property crime increased 7.1 per cent and six per cent in those years, respectively. Oliver saw year-over-year increases of 17 and 20.7 per cent in 2017 and 2018.

There is, however, no evidence that the region’s recent increase in property crime can be linked to the opening of OCC, says both the B.C. Ministry of Public Safety and RCMP.

“That said, since it is a regional facility which houses offenders from the South Okanagan, it stands to reason that once they are out, they may continue to do crime in the area, but that is as it has always been,” said regional commanding officer Supt. Ted De Jager.

The Okanagan Correctional Centre is somewhat unique in B.C. for its rural setting, with the nine other provincially-run prisons either located in the Lower Mainland, Fraser Valley or in mid-sized cities like Prince George, Kamloops or Nanaimo.

As a result the Oliver RCMP, is by far, the smallest RCMP detachment in B.C. with a prison under its jurisdiction. There were 66 violent offences inside prison walls investigated by local RCMP officers in 2018, compared to 102 within the community.

“As such, we requested two more members to deal with that work load and also the general increase in population and activity in Oliver, separate from the OCC,” De Jager said, noting the Oliver detachment is already one of the busiest in B.C. on an officer-per-caseload basis. 

The opening of OCC brought 240 new correctional jobs to Oliver, with new families moving to the area to take the positions, pushing the town's population upwards further increasing the burden on local police.

While the South Okanagan RCMP has been lobbying the province for funding for two extra officers to help with the additional caseload since at least 2016, efforts have been fruitless. 

“The RCMP has always supported an increase of two members there, but it is a funding/resourcing issue which means either provincial funding is increased or we deploy from somewhere else,” De Jager said. “Those discussions continue well beyond my level.”

At the Penticton Community Corrections office, which is responsible for supervising those out on bail or on probation across the South Okanagan and Similkameen, caseloads are actually dropping, according to another Freedom of Information request by Castanet News. 

Last year, the office’s 11 probation officers supervised an average of 421 daily clients, down from 438 in 2016. That office’s daily average count fluctuates year-to-year, dating back to 428 daily clients in 2013.

The Ministry of Public Safety said in a statement that B.C. Corrections has a number of programs in place to support individuals released from prison.

“Staff help individuals in our custody prepare for their release by ensuring they have a transition plan in place to assist with reintegrating into the community – this includes directing them to resources such as social assistance if needed,” the ministry said, adding all released inmates are provided “the means necessary to return home, or to another location that is considered reasonable.”

For released inmates with complex mental health needs, individual plans are crafted by mental health officers and Interior Health. Up to a two-weeks’ supply of medication is provided. Programs are also in place to help those at risk of homelessness, the ministry said. 

“To date there has been no evidence that crime rates have increased in communities where correctional centres are built,” the ministry said. “The majority of individuals released from OCC custody are picked up by friends or family, or as described above, are provided transportation to their communities.”

More Penticton News