Penticton woman draws blanks on jail FOI request

Response includes 339 fully redacted pages that may - or may not - explain expected social and economic impacts of new prison in Oliver

Okanagan Regional Correctional Centre FOI request by Joe Fries

A long-time opponent of the planned jail in Oliver has 339 pages of nothing to show for her latest effort to obtain information about the project.

Loraine Stephanson in March received the blanks in response to a freedom of information request she filed with the B.C. government to obtain details about the expected social and economic impacts of the prison.

The response package included one blank page that stated it and 338 others were fully redacted because the information on them is considered a matter of cabinet confidence or could be harmful to law enforcement.

“I was surprised that the whole thing was blacked out and there was not even one study or report or anything even cited,” she said.

Stephanson is a local artist who operates the Penticton Post, a blog that features local news round-ups and comments on issues of the day.

She filed the FOI request in January due to what she felt was a discrepancy in government policy around what projects it supports.

“I began to wonder why the B.C. government and politicians in this region needed endless details to support a national park, but the very simple sales pitch provided by B.C. Corrections was enough for them to support a prison,” Stephanson explained.

“I felt the B.C. government should be giving us… more specific analysis of benefits and impacts, rather than a simple sales pitch.”

Justice Minister Shirley Bond, who was in the South Okanagan last month to sign a lease agreement with the Osoyoos Indian Band for the prison site, said she was unfamiliar with Stephanson’s request, but noted that whatever was redacted would have been done so in accordance with legislation.

“I think there’s been a very thorough vetting process and all of the FOI requests that are done in government follow a particular process,” Bond said.

“Senior government officials, who are experienced in freedom of information, make those redactions. It’s certainly not something a minister’s office does.”

Bond went on to mention the hundreds of jobs the prison is expected to create.

Stephanson’s response package did contain a couple of pages featuring graphics that provide details on those jobs, but no explanation of how the numbers were estimated.

One graphic notes construction is expected to create 500 jobs “based on B.C. statistics for projects of this size.” Another graphic explains the jail should create 245 jobs for correctional workers and 65 positions for contracted service providers like nurses, cooks and maintenance people.

Stephanson also asked for records that outline expected impacts of the prison on the area’s health and social service providers, but was rebuffed there too.

The response letter noted those impact studies “would be best done directly by those health and social agencies.”

The Western News requested from Interior Health any planning documents its staff produced related to the jail and was provided only a rough calculation that estimated the prison would drive a 600-person population increase in the Oliver area.

Stephanson said she’ll ask the Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner for B.C. to review the response to her FOI request.

“If this (jail) is really so good for this region, this should not be all secret,” she said, “and we should be allowed to know the good and the bad.”

The B.C. government in March also shortlisted three consortiums that will bid to finance, construct and maintain the 378-cell prison, the cost of which was originally estimated at $273.5 million.

Last year, the Western News filed an FOI request seeking documents that explained how the Oliver site was chosen over others in the Okanagan, and received a similarly redacated response.