Safety concerns are being raised after a guard working at the Surrey Pretrial Centre was assaulted last week.
BC Corrections confirmed it happened around 4 p.m. on Tuesday, Jan. 2 as an officer was delivering a meal to an inmate in his cell.
The officer is “doing well, and recovering at home with the support of colleagues, friends and family,” according to BC Corrections.
While the government refused to comment on the nature of the assault, Dean Purdy with the B.C. Government and Service Employees Union said the guard “lost part of his finger. I believe that’s what happened.”
“The mental anguish that someone suffers after an assault like that alone is off the charts,” said Purdy. “And a few days after that incident at Surrey Pretrial, a jail-wide lock down occurred after a really violent inmate-on-inmate assault.”
Purdy said part of the issue at Surrey Pretrial, one of the largest jails in the province, is the ratio of inmates to guards.
“The living units at Surrey Pretrial Service Centre have higher counts of inmates in them,” he said. One correctional officer is responsible for a living unit, he explained, noting that in Surrey “up to 72 inmates can be in one living unit.”
That’s higher than many other jails in B.C., he said.
“Anytime you put more inmates in a confined space, it’s common sense and all the studies show, there’s an increase in violence…. On the safety side of things, we need to have immediate backup, so we need to have two officers in every living unit” so guards aren’t “isolated,” said Purdy.
“These are not isolated incidents and they’re continuing to occur on a regular basis,” he added.
Wage and retention is another problem, added Purdy, noting attrition is at 14 per cent for BC Corrections officers.
“We train new correctional officers and they’re scooped up by police and federal corrections, or they move to Alberta where they can make more money. The top rate for a corrections officer (in B.C.) is $60,000 where the average municipal police rate is $93,000, or they can go to federal and make $75,000. There’s a significant gap.”
Furthermore, B.C.’s correction officers get paid less than most of their provincial counterparts, he said.
“We’re way down the list, even behind Newfoundland. From a bargaining standpoint, we should be in the top two or three with Ontario or Alberta,” added Purdy.
That, coupled with the violence, makes retention a challenge.
“We’ve been meeting with the minister throughout the fall and it’s ongoing,” said Purdy. “We’re trying to address that attrition rate of 14 per cent.”
In an emailed statement, BC Corrections said there were only two inmates on the unit when the guard was assaulted on Jan. 2.
“With respect to ratios, due to the complex logistics of operating a correctional centre, we do not staff living units on a fixed ratio basis,” said BC Corrections. “Our model is flexible and fluid allowing for staff to be assigned to units based on comprehensive risk assessments.”
BC Corrections said it has a zero tolerance policy on violence and says “the safety of our staff and inmates is always our number one priority. Any time there is an incident involving violence of any kind, it is reviewed and where appropriate, reported to police, which may result in inmates being charged internally or facing criminal charges.”
In 2016, BC Corrections says it conducted an analysis of all staff assault incidents to determine where assaults are happening, how many staff and inmates were present, and where the risk to staff is highest.
BC Corrections says it has “implemented a number of actions to prevent future assaults from happening. It is also important to know that the work to keep staff and inmates safe is always ongoing through reviewing our policies and practices to prevent future incidents.”