Fears of negative effects from locating a prison in Penticton are overblown, according to most of the speakers taking part in a panel discussion Wednesday evening.
The five members of the panel included four people working in policing and corrections, along with a lone local businessman, Lindsey Hall, who was speaking in opposition to the proposal.
The only other local member of the panel was RCMP Insp. Brad Haugli, chief of police for the area, who started in policing career here in the early ‘90s and then spent time in detachments around the province, including six years in Surrey — where a provincial facility is also located — before being offered the chance to come back to Penticton.
“As with all of you, this is my home,” said Haugli, who tried to offer his perspective both as chief of police and as a resident.
“I worked beside a provincial correctional facility every day. It’s in the same area as the school district, as the City Hall, as the court house. Three blocks away was an elementary school and only a block away were a number of residences,” said Haugli. “Not once did I come to work fearing that someone may escape, not once did I hear about somebody causing problems or riots.”
Hall said he expected the efforts of the experts on the panel would be to focus on the safety factor, which is only part of the concerns he wanted to represent at the open forum.
“I think safety is very important but almost a moot point compared to the economic disaster that is awaiting us if we adopt a prison,” said Hall, who fears Penticton’s reputation as a tourism destination will be damaged.
According to Dr. Darryl Plecas, a researcher in criminology at the University of the Fraser Valley, those fears are unfounded.
“There is no indication whatsoever that having a prison facility in any ways taints that community in the perception of outsiders,” he said. “You don’t want to have something called the Penticton regional correctional centre. You can fix that in a hurry by giving it some other name that isn’t so closely associated with Penticton.”
However, Hall argued that hosting such a facility could not help but stigmatize the community.
“Most assuredly we would be stigmatized by a prison,” he said, arguing that Penticton has a reputation unlike Kent or Agassiz, which Plecas had used as examples of communities hosting prisons. Rather, Hall continued, Penticton has a reputation for being a quiet tourist town, a “Napa Valley of the north”, and those towns were never known as vacation spots before the prisons were sited there.
“Tourism is a very important aspect of our community and don’t believe anyone that would tell you otherwise,” said Hall, who talked about the possible impact such a stigma could have on the local economy. “Why take the chance?”
Haugli also reassured the approximately 80 people in attendance that an increase in crime was unlikely, and that it was too early to say if the RCMP would need more staff, though he said the general increase in population might trigger that. At that point, he continued, he would start talks with the city and the province to determine how the need would be dealt with.
“But when it comes to crime rate, there is no evidence that I have been able to locate that speaks to an increased crime rate in a community once a provincial correctional facility has been built. All my research points to a decrease in crime rates in those communities,” Haugli said. “As your chief of police, you have my continued commitment to reduce crime in this community, correctional facility or not.”
The panel also included RCMP Supt. Dave Walsh from Maple Ridge Pitt Meadows, where the Fraser Correctional Facility is located, and assistant deputy minister Brent Merchant, from the Ministry of the Solicitor General and former warden at the Nanaimo Correctional Centre.
Hall felt the panel was stacked against the anti-prison side of the question, feeling that indicated proponents of the prison are nervous about the reaction of the public.
“I think they are running scared,” he said. “It appears to me not only did they stack the panel against the anti-prison side, but my impression of the audience was that they were trying to stack the audience against the anti-prison side as well.”