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Correcting the Okanagan Correctional

B.C. Corrections, an academic and a union boss on moving forward from Incorrectional
B.C. Solicitor General and Public Safety Minister Mike Farnworth gets a tour of the lobby of Okanagan Correctional Centre with a pair of correctional officers on a February afternoon. Farnworth says he is still optimistic about the outlook of the jail as the dust in the new facility settles. Dustin Godfrey/Western News

This is the seventh and final part of our series Okanagan Incorrectional, delving into the first 14 months of operations at B.C.'s newest jail. Find reporter Dustin Godfrey's closing column on this series online and in Friday's paper. 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.

Issues at the Okanagan Correctional Centre have largely not been unique to that jail. Typically, those issues have been escalated examples of the issues facing corrections at large.

Even when there have been issues more unique to the jail — allegations that the jail used administrative segregation as overflow for protective custody inmates, for instance — the issue appears to derive from the same root cause.

A number of people have said it during interviews for this series: “growing pains.”

Indeed, a legal advocate who deals directly with inmates at the jail said the complaints at the jail have mostly fallen in line with those of other jails in B.C.

But when it comes to a solution, a few of the people who spoke to the Western News said the issues are more deeply rooted in the corrections system, with particular emphasis on staffing practices within B.C. Corrections.

Dean Purdy, B.C. Government Employees Union vice-president of corrections and sheriffs, often points to issues of staff turnover rates, which he largely attributes to low pay of correctional officers compared to other law enforcement agencies.

“It’s very, very difficult to maintain not only consistency within staffing, but you wouldn’t run a business like that. You have to pay fair and competitive wages in order to survive,” Purdy said.

When it comes to the question of a raise, B.C.’s Public Safety Minister Mike Farnworth would only say that the BCGEU contract will soon be up for renegotiation. But he did say B.C. Corrections is working on staffing, even mentioning staff-to-inmate ratios in living units, another one of Purdy’s major grievances.

Though B.C. Corrections has cast doubt on whether more staff would increase correctional officer safety, Purdy said it would catch violent acts as they happen as a default, rather than by fortune.

B.C. Solicitor General and Public Safety Minister Mike Farnworth gets a tour of the lobby of Okanagan Correctional Centre with a pair of correctional officers on a February afternoon. Farnworth says he is still optimistic about the outlook of the jail as the dust in the new facility settles.

Dustin Godfrey/Western News

“We’re the only province that has one correctional officer in their living units,” Purdy said, noting other provinces with the direct supervision model also often have fewer inmates per unit.

On top of that, a second CO in the unit can help staff build relationships with inmates, which is one of the most important aspects of security in jail, according to Alana Abramson, a Kwantlen Polytechnic University criminology professor who studies corrections.

And that appears to be corroborated by at least one inmate, who spoke for this series under the name C.C., and who spoke of mutual respect between staff and inmates. Staff who gave respect got it back and vice versa.

An inmate’s journey
Click on the image for a link to our interactive map, including videos, detailing processes between the arrest of a suspect, through detention and court and into jail, as well as some of those processes after an inmate’s release. You can also find the map embedded at the bottom of the story
Beyond mutual respect, Abramson said building connections through relationships is one of the key factors for an inmate to make positive strides in personal development on issues like mental health or addictions.

But one issue particular to OCC appears to have been the level of new hires at the jail.

“If (a new hire is) somebody coming fresh out of college or university with no practical experience, they are likely bringing in a lot of bias and fear about who is in our prisons,” Abramson said, noting that can hurt those relationships.

Officials initially estimated 60 per cent internal hires, but in reality, internal hires only constituted around a quarter of the jail’s staff by October.

“There’s a number of reasons why it can be a challenge to hire internally. A lot of people are happy where they are. It was indicated to me there are challenges around housing,” Farnworth said. “The one thing that I’m confident in is that we do have well-trained staff. Even if they’re new staff. And experience is something that builds over time.”

B.C. Corrections said in a statement that when the new hires were brought on they did go through extensive training, including spending time at other jails in B.C. before OCC opened up. But many of those initially hired only came a few months prior to opening, and Purdy said there is value in more substantial experience — the kind that forms a sort of muscle memory.

During a tour of the Okanagan Correctional Centre, relatively new Public Safety Minister and Solicitor General Mike Farnworth stands next to a "Now Hiring" banner at the jail before a media scrum. Farnworth says staffing in B.C. Corrections is one of the things the government is looking at.

Dustin Godfrey/Western News

For Abramson, though, part of the problem is training. While B.C. Corrections touts a strong training and testing regime for new hires, Abramson pointed to Germany as an alternative.

According to a Council of Europe survey from 2017, German states provide a two-year education for prison staff. That includes practical training and theoretical lessons ranging from law and prison administration to psychology and educational theory.

That, Abramson said, can help with that most important aspect of security in B.C. jails. An officer is better equipped to help an inmate develop in jail when he or she has a better understanding of where the inmate is coming from and the psychology behind it.

Farnworth still holds out hope for the jail’s promise of stronger relationships between inmates and staff and robust programming at the jail.

“It’s a new facility; it does take time to get things up and running. I think more and more programs are being added as time goes by,” Farnworth said in a February interview.

Farnworth pointed to programs like wood shop and the greenhouse programs, as well as a therapeutic horse program announced at the jail in February, which is unique to OCC.

Abramson said programming can be a positive thing in jail, as they can provide assistance with mental health or addictions, and even just keep otherwise bored or agitated inmates busy. But she added that programs are typically run by corrections staff without training in adult learning or psychology.

“Even when we talk about programs that may exist in there, that is problematic,” Abramson said. “We’ve really set people up to fail when we’ve put people in these places, and then don’t provide them what they need.”

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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