By JOE FRIES
New jail, same old problems.
Although billed as a state-of-the-art facility with the latest in security features when it opened in January, data from the Okanagan Correctional Centre’s first six months of operation shows inmates are still getting their hands on things they shouldn’t.
There were 76 “incidents” involving contraband drugs and 15 “incidents” involving contraband weapons at the jail in the first half of the year, according to statistics obtained by the Penticton Herald.
“These numbers represent all incidents of confirmed and/or suspected contraband, including incidents where contraband was suspected but not necessarily found,” BC Corrections said in a statement that accompanied the figures.
“Notably, these incidents also represent contraband that has been intercepted before entering the secure perimeter, so they do not reflect the number of times inmates may have had access to drugs and/or weapons. “
OCC is one of four such facilities in B.C. that boasts a full-body scanner used to check new inmates for drugs and other foreign substances.
The jail also recorded 29 inmate-on-inmate assaults during the first half of the year, plus five inmate-on-staff assaults.
“Staff assaults are defined as any violent incident that results in some degree of intentional physical contact or force such as throwing items, spitting, scratching, pushing or hitting… that may result in no or minor injuries,” the statement explained.
The numbers were nonetheless deemed troubling by a spokesman for the unit of the B.C. Government and Service Employees’ Union that represents correctional officers.
“It is concerning for us because of the fact that the centre only opened in January with a relatively soft opening,” said Dean Purdy.
“I’ve spoken to some of my counterparts who work at the jail and they have said things are starting to change a bit to the negative side now that the honeymoon phase is over at the jail.”
Mr. Purdy was unable to draw comparisons in the data to other B.C. jails, because the gradual increase of the inmate population at OCC skews the numbers.
“The thing that concerns me most is we’ve had up to 58 inmates in a living unit with just one officer present,” he added.
Mr. Purdy declined commented on a pair of lawsuits filed late last month by inmates alleging mistreatment or errors on the part of staff.
Taylor Verhaegen is seeking $35,000 for unspecified injuries he claims to have sustained Oct. 10 at the hands of a guard.
Mr. Verhaegen alleges the officer ordered him out of his cell, and when the inmate asked to have a supervisor present, the guard “lifted me by my throat and slammed me half on my bed and half on the ground.
“I was able to turn around and place my hands behind my back, but (the guard) used his open palm to hit the back of my head into the mattress.”
Mr. Verhaegen’s most recent court records are blocked by publication bans, but in October 2016 he was sentenced to nine months in jail for intimidating witnesses who were set to testify at his trial for robbing a bank in Kelowna.
The other lawsuit was filed by David James McHale, who is seeking $24,844 for injuries suffered when he was allegedly stabbed by another inmate Sept. 9.
Mr. McHale, who in April pleaded guilty to three counts of sexual interference, claims he was in a secure yard for inmates in protective custody when a guard left to serve brunch and forgot to lock a gate behind him.
“After a few minutes, the yard door opened and (the alleged attacker) burst in. He looked around and focused on me. He came toward me and proceeded to stab at me with a sharp shank and punch my head. He cut my arm and shirt,” McHale claimed.
He said police were called and the incident has caused him “tremendous anxiety and stress.”
Public Safety Minister Mike Farnworth declined an interview request regarding the lawsuits.
Instead, the ministry sent an unsigned statement that explained BC Corrections “does not comment on matters that are or may be before the courts.”
The statement added, however, that it’s “important to note that these allegations have not been proven in court.”
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