The new minister in charge of B.C.’s prisons liked what he saw Thursday at Fraser Regional Correctional Centre, despite an auditor’s general report from a year ago blasting the corrections system and showing that the Maple Ridge prison had the highest number of violent incidents.
“We deal with some people who have a tendancy to be violent and that’s an expected thing,” said Mike Morris, the new minister of Public Safety and Solicitor General.
“There’s an expectation that those kinds of things will happen.”
An auditor’s general report in 2015 said that Fraser Regional racked up the highest number of safey and security incidents, nearly 1,200 year, by 2012. That’s about 50 per cent more than the next-most violent prisons in the B.C. Corrections system in Nanaimo and Prince George.
Auditor General Carol Bellringer says one reason for the increase is that incidents are being reported more systematically. Bellringer also notes that there isn’t a clear definition of what constitutes a safety incident.
Morris, MLA for Prince George-Mackenzie, was sworn in December. He’s a former RCMP superintendent with 32 years experience in the force.
He spent Thursday morning touring Fraser Regional, on 256th Street, and Alouette Correctional Centre for Women, at the north end of 248th Street.
“I’m impressed with the professionalism of the staff. The folks who work in these institutions are very dedicated. The buildings are well maintained.”
The building design, staff training and surveillance, all mitigate against violence, he added. “There are some great programs that we’ve looked at today.”
According to B.C. Government Employees Union spokesman for corrections officers Dean Purdy, there’s been a 33-per-cent jump in violent incidents, inmate against inmate and inmate against staff, at Fraser Regional in 2015.
He said the jail was built in the 1990s for a capacity of 245, then had its capacity increased to 309.
Today, he said there are about 500 inmates in the jail because of double bunking, while the ratio of inmates to correctional officers has jumped from 20 to 1 before 2002 to 40 inmates per guard.
Purdy said three Fraser Regional correctional officers are still off work after they were attacked on the job last year. One guard was sucker punched, resulting in serious injury.
Another female officer was punched after having a bucket of urine and feces dumped on her. Another male officer was beaten by an inmate armed with a weapon.
Running a prison is a tougher job today for all concerned. “We have become the default mental health facility in the province,” Purdy said.
“The culture and the demographics of the inmates is changing. We have more gang-affiliated in our jails, so much so that it’s impossible to track the number of gang (members) in our prison.”
Purdy said WorkSafe recommendations to enhance officer safety that are given in one jail are not being uniformly applied to other jails across B.C. “We’re concerned with the increase in violence. It doesn’t seem to be going down,” Purdy said who will request a meeting with the minister.
Morris though said the prison population fluctuates, from year to year. He said he’d also like to verify the claim of the 33-per-cent increase in violence.
“It’s a very fluid situation. You’ve got inmates coming and going all the time so the numbers fluctuate quite significantly.”
Morris said Fraser Regional’s population could increase further, although he said it is nearing capacity. “I believe there’s still some extra capacity at the facility right now.”
People are housed safely, he added.
“We’re certainly not operating a four-star hotel. But we’re operating corrections facilities to try to rehabilitate these individuals and get them back on track and get them to be productive members of society, and I think those facilities do that very well.”
A new 300-cell Okanagan adult custody facility expected to open in Oliver this year could help ease congestion.
He doesn’t propose any changes as the new minister.
“I think B.C. is well in hand with the system we have.”
Bellringer also described prison rehab programs as being “a major failure” but Morris said programs have a success rate ranging between 40 and 60 per cent. “It depends how you measure that.”
He said the rehab program success rates, “are pretty significant.”
Following the tour of the women’s prison, which includes a new $45-million secure wing built in 2012, Morris said there is now a mom and baby in a special unit in the prison.
The B.C. Supreme Court ruled, after a five-year legal battle, that closing the mother-baby program in 2008 violated the rights of the inmates and their babies. Complying with a court order, the program restarted in June 2014.
In the 14 months since then up until last September, four babies had been born to inmates of ACCW, but none had been in the mother-baby unit.
The auditor-general’s 2015 report titled An Audit of the Adult Custody Division’s Correctional Facilities and Programs, makes seven recommendations and provides statistics for each of B.C.’s jails.