Okanagan corrections officers rally to protest working conditions

Prisoner-to-guard ratio is one of highest in Canada

Suicides, attacks with weapons by inmates on inmates and increasing violence against officers.

Those are just some of the problems within the province’s correctional centres that have to stop said Dean Purdy, BCGEU vice president, Corrections and Sheriff Services.

READ MORE: Protest planned as assaults on Okanagan correctional officers ‘skyrocket’

Correctional officers at a BCGEU rally against prison violence in front of the Okanagan Correctional Centre Monday in Oliver. (Mark Brett – Western News)

Late Monday morning about 30 correctional officers (BCGEU members) and supporters took part in one of a series of BCGEU rallies against prison violence at the Okanagan Correctional Centre (OCC) in Oliver.

“Weapons such as shanks (prison slang for an improvised edged weapon), inmates who jump off tiers, riots, containers of feces and urine dumped on officers and ongoing threats against officers daily is what we’re seeing,” said Purdy in a telephone interview from Vancouver. “There’s a lot of tension amongst correctional officers at the Okanagan Correctional Centre as well as other centres in the province.

“There’s a lot of apprehension, especially with the landscape changing around the use of force, around how we segregate inmates.”

One of the biggest concerns is the inmate to staffing ratios, which Purdy says can reach as high as 72:1 at OCC and only one officer on duty in each living unit.

“B.C. is the only province that has only one officer in their living units, all the other jails that have the same models and the same system in place across the country have officer to inmate ratios of 2:40,” said Purdy. “We need two correctional officers in every living unit so that our officers that work the front line in our maximum-security jails are safe, that there’s immediate back up if a situation arises.

“I can tell you that working in a maximum-security jail is one of the most stressful jobs out there. With the violence levels on the rise, it only adds to what is already a very tense time inside our jails.”

READ MORE: Man gets 2 years in prison for assault on Okanagan Correctional officer

He added post-traumatic stress disorder claims by correctional officers is “through the roof.”

According to Purdy, the number of assaults on officers reached an all-time high in 2018, 124 in the 10 provincial centres.

“In 2017 there were eight reported assaults on correctional officers at the OCC,” he said. “In 2018 there were 20 reported assaults on correctional officers at the OCC. There are many that go unreported as well.”

Corrections officer Jasmine Maynard who works at the Okanagan Correctional Centre with six-month-old son Callum at a rally in front of the Oliver facility Monday during a BCGEU rally against prison violence. (Mark Brett – Western News)

The union is having ongoing discussions with government departments and agencies to try and resolve the situation.

“We have met with the current government — Mike Farnworth (Minister of Public Safety and Solicitor General) is well aware of the problems — which inherited much of this problem from the previous government and we exchanged some ideas on how to curb the violence including changing the way we house and manage inmates and now we’re looking for is for them to follow through with that,” said Purdy, who is also in talks with WorkSafeBC about change in regulations.

“We’re hoping some things are in the works because we need some relief, we can’t keep going on like this.”

Monday’s rally, which included a contingent of Lower Mainland officers, was the fifth so far with three others tentatively scheduled.

The following is a statement released Monday by BC Corrections:

Absolutely nothing matters more to us than having staff go home safe at the end of their shifts. That’s why BC Corrections has made an unprecedented effort over the past three and a half years to introduce new and innovative classification and case management approaches, as part of the overall risk assessment process. We expect these critical measures to have a significant impact on preventing and minimizing violence.

“BC Corrections does not staff living units on a fixed-ratio basis and to say only one officer is supervising a living unit with 60-72 officers does not at all reflect reality. The scenario of any correctional centre being full to capacity requiring, two individuals in every cell, is extremely unlikely.

BCGEU members look over a poster relating to work place safety in the province’s prison. (Mark Brett – Western News)

“An in-depth analysis in 2016 showed that the vast majority of staff assaults occurred with just one or two inmates present or involved an individual who was locked in their cell at the time, typically a situation where that individual threw something at a staff member through the meal hatch. This demonstrates that ratios do not change inmate behaviour or prevent violence. Instead, new approaches rooted in classification and case management – like implementing Right Living Units and Complex Needs Units for individuals who have challenging behaviours and/or a history of violence – are helping to effect real change for staff and the individuals in their care.

“It is also important to understand that if one officer is assigned to a unit, they have a multitude of supports including:

Other correctional officers assigned to rotate regularly on and off units;

Program staff and supervisors’ frequent, unscheduled visits; and

Control room staff and technology, such as cameras and personal alarms that allow staff to receive help in seconds.

“As well, health care and mental health professionals, Aboriginal Liaison Workers and other service providers have frequent, regular interactions with incarcerated individuals in the living units.

“Our staff is our greatest resource and we are committed to supporting them and ensuring them the safest work environment possible.”

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