Jail officials touring the South Okanagan

Local governments get updated on new correctional centre

Though it’s a huge project, when the new provincial prison planned for Oliver opens, its 348 inmates will be just a drop in the bucket.

Officials from the Ministry of Justice visited the South Okanagan this week with a triple mission: update local governments and individuals on the status of the South Okanagan correctional facility, talk about jobs and contract opportunities, and explain just what the corrections branch is about.

“We don’t do a very good job of explaining what we do and how we do it. That is one of our goals over the next two years, to have the communities understand (operations at the correctional centre),” said Brent Merchant, assistant deputy minister at the Ministry of Justice.

“People generally have this view of jails as something that you see on TV. They are not that way.”

On any given day, there are 2,500 people in jail in B.C., and a further 22,000 serving their sentence in communities, Merchant told Penticton city council and the small audience gathered in council chambers for the presentation.

More than half, 56 per cent, are mentally ill or have substance abuse problems, he continued.

Domestic violence and property crimes account for about half the reasons for incarceration, along with 10 per cent for sex-related offences.

It’s those kind of figures that cause Lorraine Stephenson some concern.

She is trying to gather information through freedom of information requests, and though she received very little information so far, one response indicated the Justice Ministry didn’t assess affects on the region’s health care or social service agencies.

“We live in a region here with low income levels, low education levels, our social services are already very strapped. To me that seems like a very serious omission,” said Stephenson.

Merchant said the Oliver facility is expected to have little effect on local resources, both emergency services and health-related, which he said is mostly dealt with internally.

“Correctional centres do not consume huge amounts of time from the work of the local detachments,” said Merchant. “We’re not a drain on the medical side of the equation, we’re not taking things away from community members.”

“This is a huge experiment and I think it needs more explanation,” said Stephenson, who wasn’t satisfied with the responses she got.

“When this project was announced down in Oliver, there was a great big sign saying jobs and open government. It’s been anything but open government.”

Doug Pichette wanted to know how many jobs were going to be available to the residents of the Okanagan.

“Are you going to bring people in from other institutions?” asked Pichette.

How many actual … local jobs are going to be available?”

Merchant estimated that about 55 to 60 per cent of the staff would be experienced people transferred in from other correctional centres.

“We would never open up a centre with 245 rookies. It would spell a lot of problems,” he said, adding that they also want to hire locally.

“What we are planning on doing is to keep coming back to the Okanagan area to work with people now to inform them what they need to do to be successful for applying for a job at this correctional centre.

“The last thing we want to have happen is when we open the centre to have someone come up and say to us, ‘If I had only known this, I would have done something to get a job.’”

As staff ages out, Merchant said the aim would be to replace them locally.

“Pretty much 100 per cent of the replacement staff will be hired from the local area. We want to be community partners, we don’t want to be outsiders that people don’t like,” he said.

While jobs at the prison won’t be happening until mid-2016, the corrections branch is also helping local contractors and individuals access work during the construction phase of the facility, collecting information on local resources though the overall proponent won’t be announced until January 2014.

“We have partnered with the South Okanagan Chamber of Commerce to develop a mechanism that provides job seekers and contractors direct access to the contract opportunities as they materialize,” said Mike Houle of Partnerships B.C.

Local contractors and job seekers can register themselves through the business registry.

That information is then provided to the three teams still vying for the 30-year contract for the facility.

“These teams are as interested in this information as local job seekers and contractors are.

“Having direct access to local information, skills and capacities, locally-resourced and locally-held has great importance,” he said.

“There is a good deal of opportunity here, just as a consequence of a project of this size coming to your community,” said Houle.

The business registry can be accessed through www.sochamber.ca.

More information on qualifying for a job at the facility itself is available at www.pssg.gov.bc.ca/corrections.