(Canadian OH&S News) — Representatives from the B.C. Government and Service Employees’ Union (BCGEU), including union president Stephanie Smith, will meet with provincial Public Safety Minister and Solicitor General Mike Morris on March 31 to discuss the deteriorating conditions of British Columbia prisons.
The meeting follows recently released statistics that show an increase in violent incidents in the B.C. correctional system, according to Dean Purdy, BCGEU’s vice president of correctional and sheriff services. Purdy, who is also attending the meeting with Morris, noted that the number of incidents had increased by one-third in 2015, with 24 assaults on correctional officers at the Surrey Pretrial Services Centre and 21 each at the North Fraser Pretrial Centre and Fraser Regional Correctional Centre.
“So far in 2016, things are starting out just the same,” said Purdy. “We have seen recommendations from both risk assessments and accident investigations ignored around the province and even interim measures not being implemented.” Purdy also accused WorkSafeBC, the province’s occupational health and safety authority, of having a “soft approach” on violence in correctional centres.
BCGEU is particularly taking issue with remarks that Morris made during question period in the B.C. legislature on March 16. “Safety is not an issue in any of the correctional centres that we have in B.C.,” the Minister reportedly said.
“That’s disappointing for us to hear him say,” said Purdy. “Violence has risen significantly, and the latest numbers that have come in show how dangerous this job is, working in correctional, and especially the six maximum-security jails in B.C.”
In an e-mailed response to COHSN, Morris called the potential for violence in correctional work “an unfortunate reality,” but stressed that B.C. Corrections was taking every precaution to ensure both staff and inmate safety.
“We don’t tolerate incidents of violence. All are reviewed, with reporting to police as appropriate,” said Morris. “Ongoing risk assessments and related decisions about inmate placement — as well as security measures, building designs and staffing models — all help contribute to… the protection of staff.”
Morris also alluded to the new Okanagan Correctional Centre (OCC), completion of which is expected later this year. “When inmate placement begins at OCC in 2017, it will increase inmate housing options and support increased safety across the system,” he explained. “It will account for nearly half of the almost 800 cells B.C. Corrections will have added since 2008.
“We have hired 440 new staff since 2007 and have plans to hire more than 240 new, full-time correctional officers for OCC.”
Purdy said that OCC would take some pressure off the system, but would not solve other serious problems, such as the closed living units at the Surrey Pretrial Centre.
“We have two separate reports that recently came out,” said Purdy. “Both of those reports spoke about the need to open any closed living unit within the system, to spread out the inmate population.” Nothing had been done about this, he said.
“We have approximately 30 per cent of our inmate population with mental-health issues. We have more and more gang-affiliated inmates,” Purdy added. “It makes it more difficult for the officers to keep control of the inmate population.”
A press release from BCGEU noted that the ratio of correctional officers to inmates had decreased dramatically over the previous 15 years. In 2001, a correctional officer was typically in charge of a living unit of 20 inmates; today, prisons (including OCC) are designed to accommodate one officer per 72 inmates, BCGEU claimed.
“Our correctional officers want something changed or put in place so they can protect themselves better,” said Purdy. “Overcrowding is a problem, but understaffing is even more of a problem, and we’ve been saying for years that we now need two officers in each living unit.”
“I look forward to sitting down with the BCGEU to further discuss staff safety,” said Morris.