British Columbia

B.C. prison workers endured record-breaking year of assaults in 2018, union says

The issue of more attacks stems from B.C. Corrections' decision to close nearly a dozen jails and lay off hundreds of staff in 2002, according to Dean Purdy, chair and vice-president of the Corrections and Sheriffs Services arm of the BCGEU.

Issue stems from B.C. Corrections decision to lay off hundreds of staff in 2002, says BCGEU's Dean Purdy

Corrections staff are leaving work due to PTSD and other mental health issues, according to union leader Dean Purdy. (Shutterstock)

Union leaders are urging the province to create safer working conditions in B.C. prisons after assaults against staff reached an all-time high in 2018.

Last year, there were as many as 120 attacks against correctional staff across the province, eclipsing the previous record of 115, according to Dean Purdy, chair and vice-president of the Corrections and Sheriffs Services arm of the B.C. Government and Service Employees' Union.

"What we're seeing is more of our correctional officers who go to work each day — providing public safety — off with PTSD and other mental health issues," Purdy told CBC News.

"As soon as they go through those front gates of their jail, they're exposed to the stress, and the constant [fear of] what could happen."

Closures and staff shortages

According to Purdy, the issue of more attacks stems from B.C. Corrections' decision to close nearly a dozen jails and lay off hundreds of staff in 2002.

Since then, he says, many prisons have become overcrowded and understaffed, and officer-to-inmate ratios have risen drastically.

"[It's risen] above the one-to-20 mark that was capped in 2002, and now we have living units that are run with one correction officer that house 72 inmates," he said.

Purdy says the officer-to-inmate ratios are notoriously high at the Surrey Pretrial Services Centre, the new Okanagan Correctional Centre and the North Fraser Pretrial Centre in Port Coquitlam.

On top of being understaffed, Purdy says officers are being tasked with managing an increasingly diverse set of prisoners, including gang offenders and prisoners with mental health challenges.

Witnessing violent assaults between prisoners, as well as self-inflicted wounds and suicides, takes a heavy a toll on the mental health of workers, he said.

B.C. Corrections closed nearly a dozen prisons in 2002, including the Vancouver Pretrial Services Centre and the Chilliwack Community Correctional Centre. (Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images)

Auditor general recommendations

B.C.'s auditor general has raised concerns over conditions inside B.C.'s correctional facilities, issuing a report in 2015 saying they are overcrowded, endangering both inmates and staff.

A separate report in 2016 found the province neglected to conduct official prison inspections for more than a decade, despite provincial laws and international conventions requiring it do so.

The auditor general made eight recommendations in 2015 to improve safety, addressing both living conditions and rehabilitation programs.

A recent audit in February found mixed progress, noting that three recommendations had been implemented, while two were still being worked on. The final three have not been acted upon.

"One of the recommendations was to reduce double bunking, look at gang violence, and inmates living with addictions and mental health issues — and it hasn't followed through on those recommendations" said Purdy.

The union has met with B.C. Public Safety Minister Mike Farnworth, and says it's pleased by the discussions thus far. It's asking for more resources for adult corrections and to increase officer-to-inmate ratios.

Workers will stage a rally outside the Surrey Pretrial Services Centre on Friday to raise awareness.

CBC News has contacted Farnworth's office for comment but has yet to receive a response on the issue.

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