FOI documents provide insight on prison decision

Three sites at either end of the Okanagan Valley were short-listed as potential homes for a new jail, the deciding factors remain locked up.

Three sites at either end of the Okanagan Valley were short-listed as potential homes for a new jail, but the deciding factors remain locked up in secrecy.

The B.C. government eventually settled on a plot in a new business park outside Oliver that’s owned by the Osoyoos Indian Band. Premier Christy Clark made the announcement there in February, and the 360-cell provincial remand centre is expected to open in 2016.

Two of the seven sites offered by the Village of Lumby also made the top three, but pitches from the District of Summerland and the Penticton Indian Band did not, according to government documents, and it’s unclear what set those proposals apart from each other or the eventual winner.

The evaluation matrix was severed from records about the decision process obtained by the Western News through a freedom of information request. The matrix was attached to a December 2011 briefing note to the Minister of Justice and it is therefore considered a matter of cabinet confidence.

“For a government that says it’s going to be open and transparent … it’s been like pulling teeth trying to get information,” said B.C. NDP public safety critic Kathy Corrigan.

In a statement sent by email, the provincial government’s communications branch said only that “key considerations included project costs, zoning, environmental impacts, accessibility to major transportation routes and the projected completion date.”

The short-list of potential sites was included in a package sent to the NDP in response to its own FOI request about the jail, which the party shared with the Western News.

Brian Titus, who heads the Osoyoos Indian Band Development Corporation, did not address his winning bid’s merits in an email response to a request for comment.

Summerland Mayor Janice Perrino was told by the province that the selection boiled down to infrastructure, and the unserviced plot of Crown land put forward by her community just didn’t have any.

She wasn’t surprised to learn her bid didn’t make the top three: “We knew ours was a stretch.”

The FOI documents also indicate the cost of the facility is expected to be higher than the number that was made public.

A government press release issued the day of the premier’s announcement referenced the jail’s “estimated construction cost of approximately $200 million.” However, a briefing note sent to the Treasury Board in November 2011 estimated the construction cost at $214 million, and the total capital cost, including items like furniture and equipment, at $273.5 million.

And because the B.C. government expects to spend over $50 million on the project, the note said, “a public-private partnership is being considered as the base case.” It goes on to peg the prison’s annual operating cost at $60 million.

Titus, from the OIBDC, said the project is expected to go to tender in the fall, and construction is projected to begin in 2014.

On the issue of public acceptance, the November 2011 briefing note also mentioned that local governments in the Okanagan had been petitioning for the jail, which presented a “rare opportunity.”

“Gaining local government and community acceptance in the Lower Mainland could take years,” the note continued.

Public input on the proposed jail was sought by local governments in each of the communities that put forward bids. In Penticton, a June 2011 referendum found jail opponents outnumbered supporters by a two-to-one margin, and the city then withdrew from the process.

The FOI documents also detail an alarming need for a new jail in B.C., because, at present, the “safety of public, staff and inmates is at risk.”

Check the Western News on Friday for the second article in this two-part series.