Protest in Oliver

BCGEU vice-president Brandon Cox talks with member jail guards Monday outside the Okanagan Correctional Centre.

It wasn’t much of a protest, but the message was still deadly serious as guards gathered outside the Okanagan Correctional Centre on Monday to meet with union officials about violence in jails.

There were 20 inmate-on-staff assaults at the facility last year alone, and “those are the ones that have been reported – quite often they go unreported,” said Dean Purdy, a vice-president of the B.C. Government and Service Employees Union.

Purdy, who looks after correctional workers for the union but was unable to attend Monday’s event, said in a phone interview the problem of violence – inmate-on-inmate and inmate-on-staff – isn’t confined to the maximum-security OCC.

It’s a larger, systemic problem in B.C., he explained, due to a staffing ratio that can reach as high as one guard per 72 inmates. Prior to 2001, the ratio was as low 1:20. Other provinces, he added, adhere to a ratio of 2:40 in jails similar to OCC.

“And there’s a reason for that: you have immediate backup, you have both mental and physical support on place,” said Purdy. “We want to see something change.”

According to the union’s calculations, the OCC staff roster, which currently boasts around 200 people, would only have to increase by about 20 in order to get the ratio back to a safe level.

Purdy is optimistic the B.C.’s NDP government and Public Safety Minister Mike Farnworth will see the need for more jail guards, since the party criticized the reduction of staffing levels while in opposition.

Farnsworth’s ministry didn’t respond to a request for comment Monday.

The Okanagan Correctional Centre opened in 2017 in the Senkulmen Business Park north of Oliver. Purdy estimated there are currently around 400 inmates at the 378-cell facility.