“The honeymoon phase is over.”
That’s the sentiment of Dean Purdy, head of the B.C. Government Employees Union’s corrections division, but it appears to apply beyond staff at the Okanagan Correctional Centre.
Official complaints filed by inmates against the jail nearly doubles that of any other jail in the province.
“Prisoners were excited by the prospects,” said Shelly Bazuik, with Prisoners’ Legal Services, a Vancouver-based legal advocacy group for inmates.
In particular, inmates were excited at the level of programming that was intended for the jail and what was supposed to be a renewed relationship between staff and inmates.
But like corrections officers, that honeymoon period appears to be over for inmates.
One inmate, who spoke over several phone interviews and during a visit at the jail, said the relationships between inmates and correctional officers can be a mixed bag.
“There’s a lot of good guards that get the respect. They give us respect, they get it back,’” said the inmate, who will only be referred to as C.C., as he recently got out of jail and is looking for employment.
“There’s other ones that treat us like dog sh** and expect us to say ‘how high’ when they say ‘hop.’”
PLS provided statistics for five categories of complaints the firm receives from inmates: living conditions, medical, use of force, administrative segregation and human rights.
For those five categories combined, which are not all of the categories PLS tracks, OCC had 84 complaints, topping all other jails when adjusted for inmate population.
And in four of five categories, OCC’s per-inmate rate of complaints was above average, including eight conditions of confinement complaints.
Examples of that category include biohazards in a cell an inmate moved into, staff misconduct or a cell not getting enough heat.
“I hear complaints that general population prisoners work in the kitchen preparing protective custody prisoners’ food, and it arriving with bodily excretions or dirty underwear in it,” she said.
OCC also ranked above average for issues surrounding administrative segregation, with 14 complaints.
C.C. said he knows at least two people who were caught up in segregation for “months and months and months for no real reason.”
“Like a very soft excuse, like ‘we can’t guarantee the safety of the officer, so we’re not going to let you out of here,’ but there were no threats directly levelled,” C.C. said. “It was just fishy … ways for them to avoid putting people back on the unit.”
Bazuik said she has heard complaints of inmates being poked and prodded by officers in an effort to provoke them, “and then prisoners getting caught up in a vortex of disciplinary segregation, separate confinement and enhanced supervision placements.”
In a response, B.C. Corrections said it “does not tolerate any mistreatment of inmates.”
“We take the conduct of our officers extremely seriously and they are held to exceptionally high standards,” the ministry said, adding there are channels for inmates to make complaints.
That channel for complaints, the Investigations and Standards Office under the Justice Ministry, also received a staggering number of complaints about the jail. The Western News obtained a summary sheet of the complaints at each of the 10 jails in B.C. through a freedom of information request.
In total, OCC received 82 complaints last year that were not withdrawn or deemed unsubstantiated, frivolous or vexatious — roughly 34 per 100 inmates at the jail. About one in five of those complaints are about corrections staff.
The next highest count is 45 at the Surrey Pretrial Services Centre, or nine per 100 inmates. About one in eight of those complaints were about staff.
In a statement, ISO said complaints “fluctuate regularly, with no trend identified by any one correctional centre, and in some cases, a single inmate can be responsible for a high volume of complaints.”
A freedom of information request filed in October seeking records of complaints about staff at the jail is currently being adjudicated by the Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner. That process takes several months, and can even last years if it is taken to the courts.
Bazuik said at least some of the complaints appear to be coming from a lack of experience at the jail.
“The correctional supervisors were ex-correctional officers from other centres who’d been promoted not necessarily because they were suitable — level-headed, good at conflict resolution — but because OCC needed staff, and the power went to their heads, in the client’s opinion,” Bazuik said.
In its response, B.C. Corrections said all officers are provided with “extensive training” before being put to work.
“The opening of OCC provided an exceptional opportunity to provide staff with additional, on-site training and familiarization before the centre began to house inmates on a phased-in basis,” the ministry said.
“This opportunity fell between OCC’s grand opening in fall 2016 and the housing of inmates, the first of which began arriving at the centre in mid-January 2017. As well, all new staff job-shadowed at correctional centres in the Lower Mainland so they could gain experience at a fully operational centre.”
OCC was supposed to come with experience — 60 per cent of corrections staff were to come from other jails. However, by October 2017, only 58 staff hired at OCC were internal transfers, just over a quarter of the 216 full-time equivalent positions staffed at the jail in October.
And that doesn’t take into account replacing turnover in staff, about 10 per cent at the jail last year, on top of eight staff members who transferred out, which itself would add up to nearly half of the attrition rate.
That is slightly lower than B.C. Corrections’ 11.3 per cent average, but it doubles the five per cent rate in the B.C. government, according to Purdy.
“There’s no substitute for experience when it comes to managing a maximum-security jail,” he said. “In any occupation when you get new staff, there’s going to be mistakes that are made. It’s just human nature.”