B.C. Solicitor General and Public Safety Minister Mike Farnworth gets a tour of the lobby of Okanagan Correctional Centre with a pair of correctional officers on a February afternoon. Dustin Godfrey/Western News

Okanagan Incorrectional

More violence at B.C.’s newest jail than nearly any other

OCC’s staff-on-inmate claims tops list, jail rates second highest in B.C. for assaults among inmates

The third part in our ongoing series on some of the issues facing the Okanagan Correctional Centre since its opening in January 2017. Part four will come out on Friday, April 20.

Between stabbings and assaults from fellow inmates and allegations of excessive use of force from staff, inmates at Okanagan Correctional Centre are more likely to face violence than just about any other jail in B.C.

There were 94 inmate-on-inmate assaults at OCC last year, the second highest rate in the province when accounting for population. That is a rate of 38.8 incidents per 100 inmates, using average inmate populations provided by B.C. Corrections.

Prince George Regional, which had a rate of 39.0 incidents per 100 inmates, narrowly tops OCC, while North Fraser Pretrial Centre and Vancouver Island Regional both had rates of 37.7 and 37.1 per 100 inmates, respectively.

But on a monthly basis, B.C. Corrections notes that the per-capita rates of violence only topped the list twice last year.

Yet, the tales of violence are commonplace.

Michael Carlston was stabbed while awaiting sentencing, and Afshin Maleki Ighani is facing criminal charges for allegedly stabbing two inmates in protective custody.

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Alex Boucher claims the jail failed to protect him from being “assaulted in the worst way possible,” despite knowing about threats against him.

To curb inmate-on-inmate violence, Corrections said it is looking at implementing a “Right Living” unit in the jail, which would have inmates swear off weapons, drugs and violence.

“They also hold each other accountable and solve conflicts each day through group meetings led by the inmates and supported by correctional staff and other professional staff, as appropriate.”

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Infogram

But it isn’t just inmates that have been involved in allegations of violence.

The jail also had eight complaints about excessive use of force from staff filed with Vancouver-based firm Prisoners’ Legal Services, while no other jail had more than six.

“All use-of-force incidents are thoroughly reviewed by headquarters staff and by use-of-force experts to determine if appropriate policies and procedures were followed. Our records show there have been no substantiated incidents of excessive use of force at the Okanagan Correctional Centre,” a Public Safety Ministry statement reads.

The Investigations and Standards Office, which regulates and investigates jails, has only one complaint about staff-on-inmate assaults at the jail, which has been deemed unsubstantiated.

But there have been a number of allegations rolling in against the jail.

One inmate, who is only being referred to as C.C. in this series as he tries to find employment since getting out of jail, said he was assaulted by a staff member who tried to block him from using the phones.

A mockup of the living units at the Okanagan Correctional Centre.
Image courtesy Plenary Justice
A mockup of the living units at the Okanagan Correctional Centre.
Image courtesy Plenary Justice

Image courtesy Plenary Justice

C.C., who spent many of his days in jail bedridden with migraines, said he tried to phone the hospital after the only medications he’s found that helps with his pain took weeks to order.

C.C. claims he was told to go to lockup, but C.C. said he would call himself an ambulance to be seen at the hospital. When he picked up the phone, he said the officer moved to hang it up.

“And I pushed his hand away. Then once I realized it was a guard, I froze. He grabbed me by the throat, forced me to the ground with no resistance whatsoever from me, and handcuffed me.”

C.C. was told he was being arrested for assault on an officer, and while moving down the corridors, he said the officer “reefed on my wrist so hard something popped.”

“So I jerked my arm down and they picked me up by the handcuffs and slammed me on my head, separating my collarbone and both my rotator cuffs have been significantly damaged,” he said.

C.C.’s medical records do indicate injuries to his wrist and shoulder, and his arm was placed in a sling.

PLS legal advocate Shelly Bazuik said C.C. reported the same version of events to her.

“Prison records, I have to say, will pretty close to never admit to doing something like purposely lifting a prisoner and dropping them on their head,” Bazuik said. “I believe what he reported to me; other evidence could surface in his civil suit.”

Tayler Verhaegen claimed in a civil suit last year that he was grabbed by the throat and slammed onto his bed and floor in his cell. He said that happened after he asked for a correctional supervisor to be present when he was told to step out of his cell.

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Violence between inmates and staff
Infogram

Inmate-on-staff assaults do occur at the jail, but it’s the only type of violence with fewer complaints or incidents than average.

There were eight total inmate assaults on staff at the jail deemed substantiated last year, a rate of 3.3 incidents per 100 inmates, compared to 3.6 per 100 inmates provincially.

But that hasn’t meant the attacks aren’t vicious. Dean Purdy, the B.C. Government Employees Union’s vice-president of corrections and sheriffs pointed to one incident earlier this year, in which a correctional officer was attacked with a sucker punch. He was kicked and punched several more times after falling to the ground.

“Had it not been for the fact that another correctional officer was passing through the living unit, we don’t know what would have happened,” Purdy said.

“We think that those (assaults) are only going to continue to rise as the counts (of inmates) go up at OCC.”

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Purdy has been advocating for two correctional officers to staff each living unit, pointing to other provinces where that is the case, saying one CO per unit makes it tough to keep an eye on everything.

But the Public Safety Ministry said it doesn’t believe staff-to-inmate ratios would change inmate behaviours, as the assaults mentioned happened with more than one officer in the living unit at a time.

The ministry said “a number of specific actions” have been taken to address the issue — “and it is making a difference” — but no specifics were provided.

“However, we believe that real change will happen as we continue to focus on changing our approach to how we manage inmates with complex needs, rather than focusing on ratios (of staff to inmates),” the statement reads.

“B.C. Corrections believes that responding to their needs through programs that are alternatives to segregation — such as complex needs units, right living units and trauma-informed practice — will have a meaningful impact on inmates and therefore reduce incidents of assault.”

The Western News has requested records of incident reports regarding violence between inmates and staff through a freedom of information request, but in a response the provincial government said it would be withholding all records.

That request has been put to the Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner for adjudication.

Report a typo or send us your tips, photos and video.

Dustin Godfrey | Reporter

@dustinrgodfrey

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