Guards’ union protests at Okanagan jail, says assaults on staff have ‘skyrocketed’

A new state-of-the-art correctional facility in the South Okanagan hasn’t escaped traditional jailhouse problems, according to the union representing guards.

More than a dozen correctional officers who work at the Okanagan Correctional Centre (OCC) north of Oliver, B.C. protested outside the facility on Monday to raise awareness about workplace violence.

READ MORE: B.C.’s biggest jail officially open

Targeted violence towards correctional officers has increased every year for the past five years, according to the B.C. Government Employees Union (BCGEU).

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“Prison violence continues to escalate and assaults on correctional officers have skyrocketed,” said Dean Purdy, BCGEU vice president, corrections and sheriff services.

WATCH: (February 2018) ‘State-of-the-art’ jail near Oliver can’t escape violence, drugs, weapons

‘State-of-the-art’ jail near Oliver can’t escape violence, drugs, weapons
‘State-of-the-art’ jail near Oliver can’t escape violence, drugs, weapons

“These officers put their lives at risk every day and it’s just a matter of time before one of our members gets killed on the job.”

According to the union, prior to 2001 the inmate-to-staff ratio in B.C.’s correctional facilities was capped at 20:1. The ratio is now as high as 72:1.

READ MORE: New jail brings economic benefit for Oliver

“We are the only jail in Canada that has one officer with up to 72 inmates. It’s not good enough,” said Purdy.

BC Corrections said there were 94 inmate-on-inmate assaults and eight assaults on jail staff in 2017.

Brandon Cox with the BCGEU executive spoke of his support for jail guards at Monday’s rally.

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“Violence should not be part of anyone’s job and we’re here to end violence and overcrowding in BC Corrections,” he said.

The OCC is B.C.’s newest and largest jail, with 11 living units and 378 high-security inmate cells. The facility is located on 36 acres in the southern end of the Senkulmen Business Park, owned by the Osoyoos Indian Band.

READ MORE: B.C. jails now using body scanners to keep drugs out

Since the jail opened in 2017, it’s been sued by at least three inmates.

One small claims suit was filed by a prisoner who was stabbed by another while in protective custody. The second was for allegations of violence by a guard and the other for an injury sustained by an inmate while working.

In 2017, the jail recorded 153 incidents involving contraband drugs and 21 involving weapons, according to BC Corrections.

A request for an interview with B.C.’s Minister of Public Safety and Solicitor General Mike Farnworth was denied.

Instead, the ministry issued a statement saying that officer safety is of its utmost priority.

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The Ministry disputes the union’s inmate-to-staff ratios, saying BC Corrections does not staff living units on a fixed ratio bases so the claims “do not at all reflect reality.”

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BC Corrections said an in-depth 2016 analysis showed that the vast majority of staff assaults occurred with just one or two inmates present, demonstrating the ratios “do not change inmate behavior and/or a history of violence.”

Instead, it says focus has shifted to new approaches rooted in classification and case management—such as implementing Right Living Units and Complex Needs Units.

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