'My issue has been addiction': B.C. inmate wants rehab but says he can't get it

James, an inmate serving time in a B.C. jail, says he can't get help for the drug problem he blames for his cycle of crime and incarceration. His advocate and the union for correction officers say rehab in B.C. jails is inadequate, even though the government says it's a priority.

Gov't says rehab a priority and in line with court-imposed conditions, but staffing is a 'dynamic' situation

An inmate serving time in B.C.'s correctional system says he can't get help for the drug addiction behind his cycle of crime which has seen him convicted over 30 times since 2005. (Getty)

"The offences that I've committed during my career, my criminal history, are attributable to one thing: drug addiction."

Those are the words of James, a prisoner in one of B.C.'s provincial jails. He's currently serving time for aggravated assault, breaking and entering and possession of stolen property under $5,000.

James — who is being identified by his first name only to protect his identity while in custody — says he's been trying to get help for the drug problem he blames for his cycle of crime — a cycle of crime that has included convictions for more than 30 offences since 2005.

Most of them have been for theft under $5,000 or parole breaches, but some have included more serious charges like assault with a weapon and aggravated assault, according to online court records.

"My issue has been addiction," he said. "Everything parallels the drug use."

He says rehabilitation in B.C.'s correctional system is inadequate and he isn't receiving the help he needs to deal with his addiction.

Rehab inconsistent, claims union 

James says he went through a substance abuse program while awaiting trial in 2015, but criticized it for being ineffective and inconsistent.

"It's not very comprehensive," he said. "It's usually about an hour and a half a day. Sometimes you get two days a week. The next week you might get three or four days a week, and then the next week you get nothing."

The inconsistency is caused by low staffing levels, according to Dean Purdy, a vice president with the B.C. Government and Service Employees Union (BCGEU), the union that represents correctional officers, or COs.

The Fraser Regional Correctional Centre is one B.C. jail where staffing issues and overtime have been in the spotlight. (CBC)

COs facilitate programming in prisons such as substance abuse management, anger management and relationship counselling but are often pulled away from those duties to watch over cell blocks, he said.

"They'll not backfill certain positions that aren't critical to the operations of the jail, but they're very important as far as programs that are offered to the inmates to prevent reoffense and reduce recidivism," he said.

"They do try not to backfill certain positions to augment the overtime because a lot of the jails are into heavy overtime because of recruitment and retention problems."

Purdy says the low staff levels mean inmates often don't complete their programs or can't get into programs for help with their problems.

When Purdy's allegations were put to the government, a Ministry of Justice statement said rehabilitation is a priority, but acknowledged staff may be diverted from programming duties when needed.

"While providing programs is a priority, at the same time, B.C. Corrections must ensure the safety and security of its correctional centres," the statement read. "The staffing model is dynamic, taking into account day-to-day security needs, operational requirements, inmate count fluctuations, hospital escorts and emergency incidents."

'Provincial prisons are warehousing people': advocate

Sue Brown is a legal advocate with Prisoners' Legal Services who has worked with James to help him get into programming

She works under lawyer Jennifer Metcalfe filing submissions on James' behalf. She agrees low staffing levels are part of the problem and says it can be so bad that judges' sentencing orders, which may include rehabilitation, are simply never fulfilled.

"Regardless of what a judge wants, their decision doesn't have reach into the institutions," she said.

"[James] has gone to great lengths and essentially been begging for help with his substance abuse issues. And it looks like he's going to be released with no help at all."

Another issue is population management, she says. B.C. Corrections has a great deal of leeway when it comes to fulfilling requests for rehabilitation, and inmates need to be almost model citizens to get into programming.

"And a lot of the time, that can be a challenge for our clients," she said. "Not because they're bad, but because the conditions in the institutions make it difficult sometimes for them to be on a unit where trouble doesn't happen."

In James' case, Brown says, the sentencing judge intended for him to go to Nanaimo's Guthrie House, the province's only comprehensive drug treatment centre for medium-security inmates.

However, after sentencing, B.C. Corrections wouldn't allow that because he had been convicted of a violent crime.

Lawyer Sue Brown says the judge sentencing James for his latest conviction intended for him to go to Guthrie House in Nanaimo, a comprehensive drug and alcohol treatment facility. However, she says B.C. Corrections declined to allow him into the 38-bed facility. (johnhowardnanaimo.org)

"Most of the people I speak to want to take programs, and they want assistance re-integrating into the community," she said. "Most of my clients are very frustrated, hugely frustrated, by their inability to access those resources when they are finally reaching out for it."

When people like James are released, she says, they have almost no reintegration support and despite many having mental health problems, often don't receive medication beyond a day or two.

"Essentially, provincial prisons are warehousing people and then kicking them back out onto the street with nothing," she said.

"The impact on the community is predictable … they're released back into the community with very little support and resources then a lot of them wind up coming back into trouble with the justice system."

In a statement. a Ministry of Justice spokesperson said rehabilitative work is a priority, and "inmates receive programming appropriate to their risk profile and consistent with any court-imposed conditions."

"Case management practices are used to assess inmates and match specific programs to specific needs," the statement said. "This process determines which inmates participate in programs and which programs will most effectively address their specific needs."

The Ministry says for the 2015-2016 fiscal year, 3,058 inmates participated in programs. A total of 11,141 inmates went through B.C.'s correctional system in that time, some more than once, for a total of 18,370 admissions.


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