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Isolation likely factor in drugs, rule-breaking at Okanagan jail

PART FIVE: OCC has highest rate of infractions in B.C. and the second-highest rate of contraband violations
Seen from McIntyre Bluffs one February night, the Okanagan Correctional Centre is flooded with light, next to the darkness of empty land and the starlike twinkle of Oliver’s streetlights. Dustin Godfrey/Western News

This is part five in our series, Okanagan Incorrectional, delving into the first 14 months of operations at B.C.’s newest jail. Click on the image to go to our Okanagan Incorrectional Dashboard for a full index of the series (also available at the bottom of this article) and more information about the jail.
Feelings of social isolation at the Okanagan Correctional Centre may play a role in the jail’s high rate of rule infractions, as one researcher points out the importance of relationships between correctional officers and inmates.

In an institution built to hold those who have broken the laws, rule violations are to be expected. Indeed, at OCC the rate was 261 violations per 100 inmates, the highest in all B.C. jails.

By comparison, Penticton’s 2016 crime rate was a little under 0.14 per 100 population. That difference may not be too surprising, but OCC’s rate of rule violations is also 12 per cent higher than any other jail in B.C. The provincial average, on the other hand, is 195 violations per 100 inmates.

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Related: Dad says son in unhealthy state of mind in prison

Alana Abramson, a Kwantlen Polytechnic University professor who studies corrections, and Dean Purdy, the B.C. Corrections union boss, both point to isolation as a general security issue in B.C. jails.

Purdy has spoken out regularly about the practice of only having one officer in each living unit, which he said can make officers vulnerable and keep fewer eyes on inmates causing trouble. And there have been at least two assaults on staff this year at OCC — the jail was recently put on separate 72- and 48-hour lockdowns to investigate a pair of assaults on staff.

But for Abramson, surveillance and much of the “static” security measures are secondary to something more fluid.

“That’s dynamic security: It’s what the staff can offer by way of relationship building, helping people integrate into prison, helping people prepare for release,” she said.

That relationship, though at first optimistic in the jail, appears to have deteriorated to some degree, as explored in part two of this series.

Although he spoke in different terms, one inmate, referred to in this series as C.C., did speak to the issue of relationships between inmates and staff at OCC.

Related: ‘Violated and humiliated’: Inmate claims privacy breach in jail

B.C. Public Safety Minister Mike Farnworth poses in front of the Okanagan Correctional Centre after a media scrum, which followed his first tour of the jail. The jail opened almost exactly six months before he was named public safety minister.

Dustin Godfrey/Western News

“There’s a lot of good guards that get the respect. They give us respect, they get it back,’” C.C. said, noting others are neither so respectful nor so respected.

Over the course of the Western News’ interviews with C.C., often when he referred disparagingly to officers, he also referred back to the ones with whom inmates get along. And he did say that was more of an issue than other jails in his experience.

Part of the issue at OCC is likely the experience levels at a new jail, which was supposed to have 60 per cent internal hires but ultimately only hired under a quarter of its staff internally. C.C. and Purdy have both made mention of potential or real problems with having too few experienced staff.

Related: Another inmate files lawsuit against Okanagan Correctional Centre

Depending on what kind of experience is being brought to the jails from those new COs — for instance, someone coming from harm reduction work — Abramson said a fresh take on corrections could be useful.

“Because we know prison culture is not a healthy culture among staff. We see high rates of alcoholism, high rates of divorce, high rates of trauma when we compare to the general population,” she said.

However, for COs without experience with marginalized sectors of the community, she noted a lack of experience can diminish their ability to build those relationships.

And an inmate who is able to build and maintain relationships in jail are more likely to build and maintain relationships after jail, which Abramson said can be a major rehabilitative process.

Related: Second lawsuit in a week filed against jail

“Reducing human contact and increasing social isolation has tremendous negative impacts on people in prison. They’re already deprived of their liberty, freedom of movement and privacy,” she said.

“So to deprive them further of their social relationships creates anger, resentment, trauma, and those aren’t the people we want living next door to us.”

That’s especially true when it comes to infractions related to drug addiction.

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In OCC, infractions within the jail relating to drugs and other types of contraband amount to just over 67 per 100 inmates, the second highest per-capita rate in the province. The provincial average is 42 per 100 inmates.

In October, OCC was one of four centres to get full-body scanners for inmates to watch for drugs coming into the jail, which may have some role in the high rate of contraband infractions at the jail. In fact, October to December had three of the highest rates of contraband infractions.

Related: 4 B.C. prisons install body scanners to combat drug smuggling

On a Friday afternoon in January, the lobby at the Okanagan Correctional Centre sits empty, save for the odd staff member wandering through and reception staff. Inmate isolation, including a lack of visits from family or friends, can lead to more unruly behaviour from those inmates, according to one researcher.

Dustin Godfrey/Western News

But all of that extra static security comes with its own potential for ill effects.

“The fact is there will always be drugs in prison and the higher the security measures that you have to keep them out, just the more creative and risky people will be with them,” she said.

“There have been many cases of men and women dying by swallowing balloons full of drugs and them exploding in their bodies. That’s a terrible way for someone to go, but that is the pressure to bring drugs in, whether that is because you have a habit of your own, because you have debt, because you’re feeling pressure because you’re a young prisoner that’s being muscled by somebody else and forced to bring in drugs.”

Related: B.C. solicitor general pays Okanagan jail a visit

Abramson said jails can be mindful of drugs coming into the facilities, but to actually tackle the issue, B.C. Corrections should be looking at ways to mitigate the issues beneath the drug use.

“A lot of people move to opiates to manage emotional pain and trauma, and so we need to have a trauma-informed approach in all aspects of corrections,” Abramson said.

And that is a sentiment that echoes what is now a commonly held belief among harm reduction workers.

Related: Horse program at Okanagan jail therapeutic

In an email statement, B.C. Corrections pointed to its programming as an effort to rehabilitate inmates.

“In addition to core programs designed to reduce the risk factors that contribute to crime, B.C. Corrections encourages change in offenders by teaching them the value and importance of work and by helping them gain the skills they need to find it when they are released.”

Okanagan Incorrectional

Part 0:Okanagan Incorrectional: Dashboard
Part 1:B.C.’s promising, new jail grinds into motion
Part 2:‘Honeymoon phase is over’ at Okanagan Correctional Centre
Part 3:OCC inmates face more violence than nearly any other jail
Part 4:Okanagan jail used solitary confinement as overflow: advocate
Part 5:Isolation likely factor in drugs, rule-breaking at Okanagan jail
Part 6:Ailing health care biggest hurdle for Okanagan jail
Part 6.5:Remedying health care at Okanagan’s jail
Part 7:Correcting the Okanagan Correctional
Column:When we fail inmates, we fail ourselves

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Dustin Godfrey | Reporter
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