British Columbia

B.C. jails need more guards to address growing inmate violence, union says

"We think it's only a matter of time before someone's killed on the job," says Dean Purdy, a representative at the B.C. Government and Service Employees' Union.

'We think it's only a matter of time before someone's killed on the job,' BCGSEU rep says

The Okanagan Correctional Centre outside Oliver, B.C., is the province's newest, and largest, jail. (B.C. Ministry of Public Safety and Solicitor General)

Jail guards protested outside the Okanagan Correctional Centre (OCC) in Oliver, B.C., on Monday, urging the provincial government to hire more correctional officers as attacks by inmates continue to rise.

Last year, assaults against staff at British Columbia's prisons reached an all-time high, with as many as 120 attacks on guards across the province. Twenty of those assaults occurred at the OCC, according to B.C. Corrections.

Dean Purdy, vice-president of corrections and sheriff services for the B.C. Government and Service Employees' Union (BCGEU), worries what might happen if the government doesn't act soon.

"These are not minor assaults. These are very violent assaults," Purdy told CBC's Daybreak South. "We think it's only a matter of time before someone's killed on the job."

The BCGEU represents correctional officers at all 10 of B.C.'s provincial jails.

The rally at British Columbia's newest jail follows similar demonstrations earlier this year at correctional centres in Surrey, Saanich, Maple Ridge and Prince George.

The attacks faced by guards range from suckerpunches to prisoners hurling feces and urine, Purdy said. The day before the protest, an inmate at the OCC began punching a correctional officer after starting a fire in his cell.

Overcrowding widespread: union

Purdy attributes the rising trend in violence to widespread overcrowding, a problem he said began when B.C. Corrections decided to close nearly a dozen jails and lay off hundreds of staff in 2002.

"In B.C., we have officer-to-inmate ratios as high as one to 72," he said. "We're the only province in Canada where this happens."

Elsewhere in the country, guard-to-prisoner ratios are capped at two officers for every 40 inmates, according to Purdy. However, unions representing correctional workers in other provinces have levied similar complaints about the dangers of overcrowding in recent years. 

B.C. Corrections flatly disputed the BCGEU's claims.

"B.C. Corrections does not staff living units on a fixed-ratio basis, and to say only one officer is supervising a living unit with 60 to 72 inmates does not at all reflect reality," read an emailed statement from the provincial correctional service. 

The statement added that it was "extremely unlikely" any B.C. correctional centre was full to capacity. The OCC, B.C.'s largest jail, contains 378 cells and currently holds 307 inmates, more than 20 prisoners less than last year. There are approximately 2,400 people incarcerated across the province's 10 jails.

B.C. Corrections also claimed the ratio between guards and inmates had no influence on the numbers of attacks against jail workers.

"The vast majority of staff assaults [occur] with just one or two inmates present, or involved an individual who was locked in their cell at the time, typically a situation where that individual threw something at a staff member through the meal hatch," the statement said.

"This demonstrates that ratios do not change inmate behaviour or prevent violence."

The OCC opened in early 2017 to fanfare thanks to the minor economic boom the jail's construction brought to Oliver.

With files from Jon Hernandez