The atmosphere inside the maximum security jail in Prince George has been tense since a “major incident” Sunday, when a group of inmates set off alarms and caused a disturbance until midnight.
The union representing jail guards said a group of 10 to 15 inmates at the Prince George Regional Correctional Centre refused to follow direction from correctional officers around 8 p.m. on Sept. 22, causing damage to different parts of the jail until a tactical team was called in to regain control.
Dean Purdy, vice-president of corrections and sheriff services for the B.C. Government and Service Employees’ Union, said at least one of the inmates sustained a minor injury, during what he believes was an inmate on inmate attack.
Purdy said correctional officers were able to move out of the area where the inmates were causing the disturbance and avoid injury.
“It was a very tense time for the correctional officers that work on the frontline at that maximum security jail,” he said of the ordeal. “They’re on pins and needles.”
BC Corrections confirmed a small group of inmates set off internal alarms at the jail and a brief lockdown followed.
“The incident saw one inmate sustain minor injuries and was quickly brought under control. As such, it would be inaccurate to characterize the incident as a riot,” a spokesperson said.
The centre, which had a count of 249 inmates on Sept. 22, remains fully operational.
BC Corrections did not release further details for security reasons.
Purdy said the incident is part of an increasingly violent trend at the Prince George centre and at other jails across the province, which he partially attributed to understaffing.
In 2018, he said the number of assaults on correctional officers province-wide set a record, at 124.
“Things continue to go upwards … both inmate on inmate violence and inmate on officer violence,” he said.
“I can tell you that sick time has been way up recently. They’ve been working huge amounts of overtime, which has caused many of them to get burnt out.”
Purdy said they’re having “a heck of a time” recruiting new correctional officers or retaining existing ones.
“They’re just simply not paid enough,” he said.
While he said the average wage for a top-level RCMP officer is $86,000 or $100,000 for top-level municipal police, top-level correctional officers make only $65,000 a year.
“We just can’t compete with that. It’s something we’ve raised with government, to try and improve the wages, and hopefully they’re going to look at what’s going on in corrections across the province, because you can’t keep running your operation like this.”
Purdy said the union has met with Minister of Public Safety and Solicitor General Mike Farnworth to request that each living unit in maximum security jails have two correctional officers.
Currently, he said only one correctional officer works in each living unit, which hold between 36 and 40 inmates.
A second officer would be able to provide immediate backup, but also “the psychological support you get from working with a coworker, especially in a situation like a maximum security jail.”
“We’re hopeful that we’re going to see a change in the way we do business soon,” he said.
In response, BC Corrections said Minister Farnworth meets regularly with their representatives as well as stakeholders, and staffing is frequently raised in meetings with union representatives.
“The scenario of any correctional centre being full to capacity, requiring two individuals in every cell, is extremely unlikely,” a BC Corrections statement said.
Referring to analysis conducted in 2016, BC Corrections said the majority of staff assaults occurred with one or two inmates present, or involved an inmate who was locked in their cell and threw something through the meal hatch.
“This demonstrates that ratios do not change inmate behaviour or prevent violence,” the statement said.
Instead, BC Corrections said new approaches like Right Living and Complex Needs units are leading to real change for staff as well as inmates.
Right Living units involve inmates committing to living free from violence, substances and weapons, electing a leader, and working together to build a community.
Complex Needs units provide more support and supervision for inmates who struggle with behaviours due to substance use and mental health needs.
BC Corrections also said even if one correctional officer is assigned to a unit, other officers rotate on and off, program staff and supervisors visit, and control room staff and technology, such as cameras and personal alarms, allow staff to receive help in seconds.
“As well, health care and mental health professionals, Aboriginal Liaison Workers and other service providers have frequent, regular interactions with incarcerated individuals in the living units,” the statement said.
“Our staff is our greatest resource and we are committed to supporting them and ensuring them the safest work environment possible.”