In the early days of the Okanagan Correctional Centre, as it filled with inmates and staff, solitary confinement became a sort of overflow for three inmates in protective custody, according to a B.C. legal advocacy firm.
“For months and months there was only one PC (protective custody) unit, and OCC had way more PC prisoners than that,” Prisoners’ Legal Services legal advocate Shelly Bazuik said.
“So the overflow (inmates) were being told the only way their safety could be guaranteed was by checking themselves in to segregation, 22-plus-hour-a-day lockdown, and then eventually, the slightly better health-care and mental health observation units, which are 22-hour lockdown, but with access to TV and personal effects.”
But getting solid information on the institution’s uses of solitary confinement is exceptionally difficult, according to PLS executive director Jen Metcalfe.
The Western News filed a freedom of information request for a stat sheet of all uses of segregation at the jail and reasons for the uses of segregation. But Corrections could only provide three single-day snapshots.
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The Correction Act Regulation allows segregation for safety concerns, including short- and long-term and voluntary segregation, as well as segregation during the disciplinary process.
Between the jail’s opening and January this year, three surveys were conducted on May 15 and Dec. 1, 2017 and on Jan. 19, 2018.
In May, there were 26 inmates in segregation — 11 for disciplinary reasons, and 15 for security reasons — making up 11 per cent of the jail’s average population that month.
By December, when the jail was considered fully operational, 41 inmates were in segregation, making up 12.5 per cent of OCC’s average population that month. That’s despite the segregation unit only has 36 cells, according to the request for proposals put out by Partnerships B.C.
Of those inmates, 29 were in for security reasons and 12 in for disciplinary reasons.
In January, there were 44 inmates in segregation, 14 per cent of the inmate population reported to be at OCC on Jan. 15.
B.C. Corrections said the numbers in segregation seen in OCC were standard across the board, and denies using segregation for space management.
A request for comment on the apparently lacking record-keeping on segregation and the discrepancies between the number of segregation inmates and the number of cells did not yield a response as of publication. The Western News will update if and when a response is issued.
“There is currently — and always has been — enough space to house inmates classified to protective custody at OCC,” a B.C. Corrections statement reads, reiterating Warden Steve DiCastri’s statement.
“It should be noted that there are some cases where an inmate could be at risk even in the protective custody population. In these cases, inmates may choose to be separately confined from the inmate population on a voluntary basis, or they may be transferred to another centre.”
But PLS received three independent complaints about that exact issue.
“It was growing pains. They did not have the staff to open enough units for the prisoners that were being placed there,” Bazuik said.
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Bazuik said she also received two troubling complaints that inmates were asked to waive contact concerns.
When placing inmates in living units, jails have to consider things like court-ordered no-contact orders often placed on co-accused, as well no-contacts for security reasons.
“(They) were being asked to waive those concerns because there were members of rival orgs on all the GP (general population) units,” Bazuik said.
“Or else (they would) be placed in segregation or protective custody (if possible), which GP prisoners never want to do because you cannot come back from it. Once you have been PC, you will be targeted by GPs because they know who have done something to warrant protective custody.”
Again, PLS got some pushback on that issue, with DiCastri denying to the legal advocates that the jail would ever ask inmates to waive their contact concerns.
Metcalfe said PLS doesn’t often receive complaints about other jails using segregation as overflow or asking inmates to waive contact concerns.
“In general, correctional authorities are really concerned about having people in contact with incompatibles, because that’s where people are put in danger.”
With that said, with 14 complaints against the jail regarding solitary at PLS, the jail has only the fourth highest per-capita rate among B.C. jails.
Solitary confinement recently came under fire across Canada after the B.C. Supreme Court ruled against indefinite segregation in federal prisons. In B.C. jails, the Correction Act Regulation says inmates can be held for 15-day periods, but there is no limit to how many times that can be renewed.
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It’s still unclear how the ruling, which is being contested by the federal government, would affect provincial jails.
The province has said it will be reviewing its policies on segregation since the ruling on indefinite use of segregation in federal prisons.
In 2014, the B.C. Civil Liberties Association said those with mental illnesses are more likely to be put in segregation, and in the federal system, Indigenous inmates are overrepresented in solitary. But even those simple demographics are unattainable because of the lack of records on segregation in B.C.
For those with mental illness, the practice truly can be torture, and even those in segregation near cells with inmates struggling with mental illness report their own distress, Bazuik said.
“Prisoners in segregation who do not suffer from mental illness frequently complain about the inhumanity of having to watch, but not being able to intervene in the suffering of people being separately confined while in a mental health crisis.”