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A look at Surrey Pretrial’s storied history

Expansion, coroner’s inquests recommendations and concerns about staff safety reveal it to be a work in progress
A view inside Surrey Pretrial. (Photo: Amy Reid)

Editor’s note: Some content may be disturbing to some readers

It will come as no surprise that bad things happen at Surrey Pretrial Services Centre.

It is, after all, a jailhouse. And like most correctional centres, this one has a storied history.

Built in 1991, Surrey Pretrial has gone through major expansion since then to become B.C.’s largest provincial prison. It, along with Vancouver Pretrial and the Fraser Regional Correctional Centre, helped replace Oakalla prison in Burnaby when Oakalla closed that same year.

Surrey Pretrial has also housed some notorious inmates. Undoubtedly the most notable was child serial killer Clifford Olson – aka the Beast of B.C. – who was briefly held within its walls during his infamous Section 745 hearing at Surrey provincial court, in 1997. Also known as the “Faint Hope Clause,” the section allowed for convicted murderers to apply for eligibility to apply for parole after serving 15 years, on the faint hope they’d been rehabilitated.

A heavily guarded Clifford Olson, centre, awaits transfer to Surrey Pretrial on Wednesday, August 13, 1997 after stepping off an RCMP helicopter. He was flown by jet from Montreal to Abbotsford, B.C., where he was picked up by the helicopter. (Photo: Leah S. Briggs)

Not even the killer of at least 11 children – four of them from Surrey – believed he would succeed but to Canadians’ great ire he was nevertheless entitled to his four-day hearing, after which the jury took 12 minutes to refuse his application and he was sent packing back to the Special Handling Unit in Sainte-Anne-des-Plaines, Canada’s highest security prison. Olson died of cancer in Archabault Institution in Quebec in 2011, at the age of 71.

Also, not surprisingly, there has been violence within Surrey Pretrial’s walls, self-inflicted and otherwise.

In September 1995, 10-year-old Guildford girl Melissa Deley was ripped from her home as her family slept. Her alleged killer, 20-year-old Bret Shane Neff, hanged himself with a bedsheet in his cell at Surrey Pretrial a few days after he was arrested.

A coroner’s inquest was held and in 1996 the jury recommended that corrections staff keep closer watch on inmates, that the type of ceiling vents from which Neff hanged himself be replaced, that video cameras be installed so prisoners in segregation can be observed better, that a minimum of two guards be stationed in the segregation area at all times, and that all guards carry a two-way radio.

There have been other coroners inquests resulting in recommendations for Surrey Pretrial.

One such inquest was held in 2018 into the 2016 suicide of inmate David Singh Tucker, 28, who was being held in the segregation unit. He died on July 25, 2016 and had last been seen alive when he received dinner at 4 p.m. July 24. Corrections officers found him unresponsive when they checked on him early the next morning. Coroner Susan Barth determined he died of acute methadone toxicity, as a consequence of a “self-administered dose of unprescribed methadone acquired by unknown means.”

READ ALSO: ‘We are no longer a warehouse’: An exclusive look inside Surrey Pretrial

The inquest jury made seven recommendations to the Ministry of Public Safety and Solicitor General, Corrections Branch, and the Provincial Health Services Authority. These included ensuring that corrections officers document in detail body positions and unusual behaviours of segregation inmates, be able to control lighting in segregation cells housing inmates considered at high risk of committing suicide, make sure lighting, cameras and sprinklers can’t be defeated by inmates, and require that all inmates that are prescribed methadone be watched for 30 minutes, instead of 20, after taking it.

As with any prison, inmates assaulting inmates, as well as staff, is an ever-present concern. Double-bunking has also been an issue.

In 2015, for an example, convicted sex offender Jeffrey Alan Goddard was sentenced to three years of probation for sexually assaulting an 18-year-old cellmate at Surrey Pretrial. The 29-year-old man forced the younger man to masturbate him in the cell, telling him if he didn’t, he’d smash his face into a wall and then call friends outside of jail to beat him up.

Most recently, a coroner’s inquest jury into the 2016 strangling death of John Michael Murphy at Surrey Pretrial Services Centre last week recommended better surveillance of prisoners, improved staff communication during shift changes and improved “speed of access” for emergency personnel.

Murphy, 25, died on Aug. 3, 2016, after his cellmate held him in a choke-hold for longer than 10 minutes. John Cole Burt, 22, pleaded guilty to manslaughter and was sentenced to five and a half years in prison.

READ ALSO: Coroner’s inquest jury into Surrey Pretrial death calls for improvements

Lyall Boswell, the current warden of Surrey Pretrial, said he sat through each day of the Murphy inquest.

“I spoke to the family, the mother spoke on the last day of the inquest, it was very powerful,” he told reporter Amy Reid, who toured the centre recently. “We take all this stuff very extremely seriously. Our staff were impacted by this. It’s unimaginable that something like this could happen, and deeply upsetting.”

Lyall Boswell, warden of Surrey Pretrial. (Photo: Amy Reid)

“There’s a lot of privacy people who say we shouldn’t have cameras in any cells at all,” Boswell noted. “That people should be able to live away from them. Now, we put the cameras in as tools that enable us to keep people safer when they’re in a volatile area like segregation or sensitive area like segregation. So to go further down that road, you run into different competing challenges such as segregation, isolation, is a big concern, so from that perspective sharing a cell isn’t necessarily negative. But then of course, sharing a cell and something tragic happens, that raises all sorts of questions too. Getting the balance is very complicated, very complicated.”

In February 2018, 15 inmates went on a hunger strike to protest conditions at Surrey Pretrial, with overcrowding among their grievances. In 2002, a distraught Cloverdale mother contacted this newspaper to complain that her 19-year-old son, who was serving a four-month sentence for property crimes, was being held in segregation at Surrey Pretrial and provincial government penny-pinching had resulted in inmates accused of minor crimes being held in eight-foot by 10-foot segregation cells for 23 hours a day, for lack of other space.

That same year, in 2002, a study conducted by Simon Fraser criminology professor Neil Boyd revealed that B.C.’s corrections officers were facing the highest risk of on-the-job criminal violence of anyone in the province. Boyd’s study was commissioned in response to increases in the double-bunking of inmates and an increase in inmate-to-staff ratios as a result of government cost-cutting. It found corrections officers had made twice the number of Workers’ Compensation Board claims in 2000 and 2001 for on-the-job violence than did police officers.

Fast forward 17 years, from 2002 to 2019, and there still seems to be plenty of danger and dissatisfaction. In March 2019, some 40 Corrections officers rallied outside the pretrial centre to protest what they described as unmanageable levels of violence inside B.C.’s prisons, especially at Surrey’s.

SEE VIDEO: Officers rally at Surrey Pretrial as violence in jails hit ‘all-time high’

Four months later, this past July, the British Columbia Government Employees Union (BCGEU) demanded that Surrey Pretrial management act on recommendations from frontline officers after a supervisor was assaulted on July 10 and sent to hospital.

“I have heard loud and clear that our members, the correctional officers and supervisors do not feel safe,” Dean Purdy, a BCGEU vice-president, said at the time.

Officers from Surrey Pretrial Services Centre rallied outside of the centre on Friday (March 8) about the “unmanageable levels” of inmate-to-officer ratios at B.C. prisons. (Photo: Lauren Collins)

This was still the case, roughly four years after Surrey Pretrial had become B.C.’s biggest prison with the opening of a new wing containing 216 cells, increasing its capacity to 365 cells.

“There are many reasons why bigger is better,” then-Minister of Justice Suzanne Anton said at the Feb. 5, 2014 ribbon-cutting to open the $90-million expansion. “We have more gang members that have to be kept apart.”

Anton would not reveal what she described as impressive security features contained in the design.

“Let me assure you, it’s state-of-the-art,” she said of the new Surrey Pretrial, at the time.

It is, undeniably, also a work in progress.

Suzanne Anton, B.C.’s justice minister in 2014, viewing a model of the Surrey Pretrial expansion. (Photo: Jacob Zinn)

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About the Author: Tom Zytaruk

I write unvarnished opinion columns and unbiased news reports for the Surrey Now-Leader.
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