Cutbacks by Campbell government have escalated tensions within institutions and are making life more dangerous for guards and staff
Vancouver (5 July 2006) - Overcrowding in British Columbia jails is now so bad that 75% of all inmates are forced to share cells designed for individual prisoners, says the B.C. Government and Service Employees' Union (BCGEU/NUPGE).
The level has increased dramatically from a double-bunking figure of about 36% in the late 1990s and is caused mainly by the closure of 10 provincial jails and the elimination of several hundred correctional service jobs by the government of Liberal Premier Gordon Campbell.
And it is forecast to rise even higher - to 80% or more - during the current year, the BCGEU says.
The deteriorating situation has led to rising tension within the current network of provincial jails (including the Vancouver Island Regional Correction Centre, pictured here). One result is a rising number of assaults and incidents directed against correction staff.
The BCGEU, which represents jail guards, says the ratio of inmates to staff has risen from around 20-1 in the late 1990s to about 50-1, and as high as 60-1, today.
BCGEU president George Heyman says the jails are a much more dangerous place for correctional staff to work now than in the past.
"All the anecdotal information I've received from our members is that the [violence] level has risen significantly," Heyman says.
"It stands to reason that the stress levels and the agitation levels of the inmates is going to be very high and there's an increased risk of violent behaviour."
Heyman says its clearer now than ever than the deep Campbell cuts and closures were a big mistake.
Heyman says there are simple solutions to ease the overcrowding crisis: open the corrections facilities that were closed by the Liberals and make up for hundreds of layoffs by hiring more corrections staff.
When the jail closures and staff cuts were made, the Campbell government forecast that the use of house arrests would increase in coming years and that fewer people would be jailed.
The projections were wrong, as have been many of the public assurances the province has given over the years to justify the unprecedented cutbacks it made after it was first elected in 2001.
The cuts were made in large part to accommodate a $1 billion tax cut - aimed mainly at higher income British Columbians - announced the first day Campbell took office.
CanWest News Service obtained a briefing note, sent to Solicitor General John Les in 2005, saying B.C. jails are now operating at 100% capacity and that 75% of inmates are double-bunked. B.C. Corrections puts the current level one point higher at 76%.
Les told the news agency that the main reason for recent overcrowding is an explosion in the number of inmates remanded to jail while awaiting trial. Many no longer seek bail because judges usually deduct remand time at a rate of two days to each one spent in jail before trial, he said.
(In Ontario, where overcrowding is also rampant as a result of similar cutbacks made by the former Conservative government of Mike Harris, conditions are so bad that the ratio of time deducted for remands is sometimes three-to-one.)
A 2002 study commissioned by the BCGEU, and carried out by Simon Fraser University criminologist Neil Boyd, found provincial jail guards are exposed to more on-the-job violence than any other occupation. The rate was twice that faced by police officers, it concluded.
The John Howard Society of B.C., which helps reintegrate inmates into society after their release, told CanWest it has seen a noticeable impact on its clients from overcrowding in B.C. jails.
"Their need levels are increasing," executive director Tim Veresh told the news service. "The levels of mental illness and anxiety in individuals are much greater." NUPGE