B.C.’s newest jail, though it came with promises of renewed inmate relations and a stacked list of programming, has been no stranger to trouble.
From assaults on inmates and staff and complaints of excessive force from staff, inappropriate use of solitary confinement, lengthy waits for doctor visits and at least six lawsuits being filed against the Okanagan Correctional Centre, the high-security jail saw its share of challenges in its first 14 months of operation.
From atop McIntyre Bluff at night, the flood of light that surrounds the jail is in stark contrast with the twinkle of Oliver’s streetlights and the darkness that separates the two.
But the building doesn’t immediately stand out after you turn off Highway 97 onto Enterprise Way, entering the sparsely populated but burgeoning industrial park of the Osoyoos Indian Band.
And the building isn’t particularly conspicuous. You aren’t confronted with the concrete block of heavily patrolled watchtowers you see in the movies.
The cleanly boxed design of the building’s facade has all the makings of an institution — on approach, you might mistake it for an airport. The neutral colouring of a library surrounds the public entrance, and a wall of windows hovers over the area, displaying several offices.
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|On the west side of the building, the characteristics of a public space give way to the hallmarks of a jail — concrete, chainlink and barbed wire.
(Dustin Godfrey/Western News)
A metal detector at the public entrance blends into its surroundings, and the lobby, up a flight of stairs, is guarded only by pleasant receptionists with pens and check-in forms, who guide visitors to the labyrinth of micro-cubicles in the public visitation area.
Each cubicle — despite the lack of activity in the building one Friday afternoon in January, there are a couple dozen of them — has a screen with a telephone handset.
The screen shows an off-white brick wall in a room awaiting the arrival of an inmate. The video feed is coming from the other half of the facility, a cold image next to the sleek lobby.
To the west of the public entrance, all the appearances of a public facility give way to the hallmarks of a jail — a slab of concrete with a heavy metal gate, chain link fence and barbed wire.
The high-security, 378-cell facility came with a $212.8 million capital price tag as of Oct. 23, 2017, according to a government summary report.
|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.
(Dustin Godfrey/Western News)
The majority of that comes from a $192.9-million Partnership B.C. agreement, which was finalized in March 2014 with Plenary Justice. The group consists of four companies including project lead Plenary Group, designers DGBK Architects, PCL Constructors Westcoast and, for facility management, Honeywell Ltd.
Public Safety Minister Mike Farnworth said he still believes in the promises of better inmate relations and the effectiveness of the programming, as B.C. Corrections continues to develop the jail, considered to be in full operations by October last year after months of phasing in inmates and staff.
And, indeed, the economic spin-offs have been realized, according to Oliver Mayor Ron Hovanes, who said the community has seen, among other things, an uptick in school enrolments since the jail’s opening.
But the first year of B.C.’s newest provincial jail, which houses transitory inmates and those serving sentences of less than two years, has been fraught with issues. Public Safety Minister Mike Farnworth called it growing pains, before correcting himself.
“Not growing pains, but there’s still issues surrounding the fact that it’s a new facility, and you want to get everything running, and there’s still new staff that needs to be hired,” Farnworth said in an interview following a media availability in February.
And for most of those with experience with the jail, whether professional or personal, that appears to have been the source of many of the issues unique to or particularly prevalent in OCC.
Eventually, an inmate appears in the video feed in the jail’s visitation area. Speaking both during a January visit and over numerous phone interviews about his experience at OCC, he is one of several people to speak about the turbulent first year at the jail.
The Western News began investigating Okanagan Correctional Centre with some freedom-of-information requests in October — some of which are still being processed by the B.C. government or being challenged through the Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner.
After months of research, hours of interviews on and off the record and on background, innumerable email exchanges, letters and court files, the Western News presents its series: Okanagan Incorrectional, a deep dive into the first year at B.C.’s newest jail.