KAMLOOPS - A union chair is calling on the province to offer staff more protective measures after an inmate beat and bit a corrections officer at a Kamloops jail this week — the seventh in a series of similar assaults this year.
“Something needs to be done, it’s pretty obvious,” Dean Purdy, chair of corrections and sheriffs services component of the B.C. Government and Service Employee’s Union, says. “We’re not too happy with everything that’s been going on lately. This has been an ongoing theme."
Purdy says the officer was assaulted in a general population unit on June 22. The staff member was taken to Royal Inland Hospital after sustaining multiple blows to the head and body, along with bites to the shoulder, arm and wrist.
“I don’t think the officer saw it coming at all,” he says.
The chair notes the location with the highest amount of officer assaults is the North Fraser Pretrial Centre, but says 'KRCC is right behind them.' Purdy blames the issue, in part, to an overcrowding of inmates — a trend he says officers were told will continue.
“All reports that we’ve been given by the Corrections Branch is that the counts are going to rise until 2020,” he says.
As of January, the Kamloops Regional Correctional Centre was operating at a 148 per cent capacity, down from 154 per cent last year, according to the auditor general’s report. The jail has a total of 185 cells spread over 11 units, not including units for segregation or medical observation. According to the Ministry of Justice, the province added extra bunks to units in the early 2000s to double-bunk cells. One unit, which inmates dubbed “the tent” is Dufferin House — a white sprung structure located outside of the centre to house open-custody or low-risk inmates.
Purdy says crowded units give reason for safety concerns; typically one officer is responsible per unit which, depending on the location of the centre, could house between 30 to 72 inmates at a time. Defensive equipment for officers are a can of pepper spray (which Purdy says was approved last year) and a call button to page other officers in the event of an emergency.
“The common theme that we’re hearing around the province now is that staff want to see more ways that they can be protected. We’re seeing more violent inmates than we ever have (before) due to the overcrowded jails with the very unstable in general population,” Purdy says.
He adds staff are on alert for violence from inmate gang affiliations as well. The chair says 23 per cent of inmates across the province are afflicted with mental health issues, which he says can create cause for concern in general population units.
Cindy Rose, a spokesperson for B.C. Corrections, says the province is investigating the assault along with union representatives. WorkSafe B.C. confirms it's investigating the incident as well.
“I’m glad to be able to say that the officer is doing okay,” Rose says, but adds the staff member was 'shaken up' following the attack.
She notes two officers were working on the unit at the time of the assault, but provides little comment on whether the province is considering placing more officers on a unit.
“To say that there is only one officer supervising a unit is not telling the whole story,” she says, adding officers are checked on regularly by other rotating staff members such as prowl officers and chaplains.
She notes live security video feeds of units help speed up response time in case of an emergency.
“Response time is well under a minute in most cases,” she says.
Rose says staff concerns will likely be addressed at a monthly occupational health and safety meeting. Violence towards officers is on the decline, she says, noting the number of assaults province-wide in 2012 was 105. The number shrunk to 70 in 2014.
The province is taking steps to reduce pressures on a ballooned population capacity, Rose says, noting the 'investments are already paying off.'
According to Rose, province-wide capacity is at 125 per cent versus 180 per cent in 2009-2010 after the government invested in expansions at the Alouette Correctional Centre in Maple Ridge, the Prince George Regional Correctional Centre and the Surrey Pretrial Centre.
Rose says officials are expecting a further capacity reduction in the B.C. Interior after the 378-cell Okanagan Correctional Centre in Oliver opens next fall.
-This story was updated at 3:23 p.m. on June 25, 2015 to include 'prowl officers'.
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