Being attacked by an inmate and stabbed in the head with a pencil was the last of many assaults against a Pitt Meadows Corrections officer. It’s the one that ended his career, but he contends it didn’t have to.
Dave Backeland has a complaint against his former employer, BC Corrections, before the BC Human Rights Tribunal. He alleges Corrections discriminated against him on the basis of disability – he suffers from crippling post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) caused by incidents during 22 years of working in prisons.
The Pitt Meadows man was working at Fraser Regional Correctional Centre in Maple Ridge on April 18, 2016, when an inmate with a history of violence attacked him.
He works in segregation, “the most violent place in the jail.”
Backeland had asked management weeks prior if he could give the inmate a rubber pencil, which are commonly used at other institutions. He alleges they gave him a sarcastic remark about the cost, and the inmate was left with the hard pencil he would wield as a weapon in the assault.
Backeland was experienced – he had done virtually every job in the prison. He was an administrative court judge, acted as a manager, and had been on the emergency response team.
So he was able to somewhat defend himself from an assault that could have been much worse, but it left him with injuries to his head and hip. It left him shaken, and reluctant to simply get back to work.
He had been part of the leadership group at Fraser, but the PTSD made him “an embarrassment to them,” he said.
Fighting to get his job back, rejected by his employer, was like another assault. His psychologist said it led to worsening symptoms of PTSD.
Backeland’s lawyer, Coquitlam-based labour rights specialist Sebastien Anderson, said he has a strong case against Corrections.
His prognosis of successfully returning to work was good, and the request by the employee was minimal – the simple ask was a gradual return to work. In vivo exposure is a common tool with PTSD patients. In this case, Backeland would be placed in a control room where he could observe the inmates and his former workplace, before going back into the prison.
“They denied that one hour of in vivo exposure,” said Anderson. “They just wouldn’t do it, and it’s ridiculous.”
The lawyer said Corrections has a duty to accommodate employees suffering PTSD, but did not find Backeland a new position in Corrections. Failing that, they looked outside Corrections, but failed to find him employment.
Anderson said they looked at him as “damaged goods.”
Backeland said that is how he felt throughout the process of trying to get back to work.
“They see me as a liability rather than as an asset now.”
Fighting for his job made the PTSD worse, he said.
He left in November of 2018, forced out. He has been deemed unemployable by Worksafe, he said.
His pension payments are approximately $1,900 monthly, but if Backeland had worked until the age of 55, they would be $3,600. His lawyer said his pension alone makes his lawsuit worth approximately $750,000, and the entire claim more than $1 million.
Backeland had suffered an earlier bout of PTSD in 2003, after an inmate with severe mental health issues attacked him and another officer.
Both were severely beaten and injured.
He was allowed a slow return, did not work with inmates for a year, and successfully got his career back.
After the first bout of PTSD, he endured about 12 more assaults before the attack in 2016. There was a range from having urine and feces thrown in his face, to being struck. Violence is commonplace at Fraser, he said.
“You get assaulted. The big one is urine or feces, and you’re just told to wash up and go back to work,” he said.
He said the culture at Fraser is to not let the inmates “win,” so guards get back to work as soon as they can.
But Backeland was in no shape to return to work after the last assault.
The PTSD manifests by making him angry, violent and defensive when he hears loud bangs, which he likens to closing prison doors; or when he sees red, which is the colour of prison uniforms. The smell of feces, after having been “s…bombed” by inmates, is another trigger for his disorder.
He gets angry, and he breaks down. He has broken his fist punching walls. He has been hard to be around.
“What my family has gone through is horrible… to watch this.”
“It’s sad. And there is no help for the families.”
Backeland said police officers, firefighters and paramedics experience trauma, but he sees them as “doing good in the world.” He sees prison workers as being in a completely negative environment.
“You don’t really have good days.”
He used to be a joker. He and his wife were always out.
Now he doesn’t leave home. He can’t sleep.
“I used to pick my dreams, now my dreams pick me.”
He is now seeing a psychologist regularly, and learning coping mechanisms. He and a friend have started a group of first responders dealing with PTSD who meet each Wednesday morning at the Maple Ridge Legion. They can come and have a coffee and talk, or just listen, and hopefully feel support. There are police officers, military, sheriffs, nurses and a variety of people.
“It’s a really good thing,” he said.
Slowly Backeland is getting over the trauma.
No longer fighting for his job his helpful. So too will be the end to legal battles he has been immersed in.
“Then I can put it all behind me, and put the nightmares and trauma in the past.”
Corrections has applied to have the human rights complaint dismissed, saying corrections officers at Fraser cannot be guaranteed safety from violence.
Backeland and his lawyer are waiting for a ruling on the dismissal application early this year.
BC Corrections offered no comment about Backeland’s case, saying “BC Corrections has responded to the allegations through the human rights commission/tribunal process that Mr. Backeland has made before the Human Rights Tribunal. Due to privacy laws, and respecting the Tribunal’s process it would be inappropriate to comment further.”
His union, the BCGEU, has also been named in the discrimination complaint, and has applied to have it dismissed.