Smaller Okanagan community feeding jail violence, minister says

But unique programming helping inmates to adjust

Solicitor General Mike Farnworth visited the Okanagan Correctional Centre Friday.

A provincial correctional facility located in Oliver may be state-of-the-art, but even it hasn’t perfected the ability to end inmate violence.

That was the message Mike Farnworth, BC’s Solicitor General and Minister of Public Safety, shared at the Okanagan Correctional Centre Friday — although he would have much preferred to talk about horses.

“Violence issues occur in any correctional facility, not just here,” he said in response to a series of media questions concerning reports of numerous attacks by inmates on other inmates, inmates on staff and even staff on inmates.

“It’s something that we take very seriously.”

A BC Corrections report released last year indicated there were numerous incidents of inmate-on-inmate attacks — and a handful of inmate-on-staff assaults — in the first six months of 2017, 15 involving weapons.

Security at the centre is also the subject of several lawsuits filed by inmates alleging negligence on the part of facility staff and, in at least one case, violence perpetrated by a correctional officer.

Part of the problem, said Mr. Farnworth, is the Okanagan’s “smaller population.”

“We know, for example, that some of the causes here in the Okanagan are because many of the inmates know each other,” he explained. “And if there are grudges and issues coming from outside and brought inside, it makes it slightly more challenging.”

The centre’s population is comprised of inmates largely serving time for property offenses — those infractions that would result in sentences of “two years less a day.” But that, added the Solicitor General, doesn’t mean the inmate population is any “kinder or nicer” that you would find in a federal facility.

“In fact, there are individuals here who are involved in some very serious offenses who may be awaiting trial,” he said. “In any corrections facility, you’re going to have challenges with individuals.”

One method of dealing with that challenge is to provide therapeutic programming.

Some inmates at the centre are learning to care for large animals through a unique program offered in partnership with the Osoyoos Indian Band (OIB).

Trained handlers are on hand each morning to guide up to six participating inmates in the care, feeding, grooming and washing of two horses kept in a stable facility adjacent to the jail.

“Working with horses has been proven to help people overcome mental-health issues, trauma and other challenges,” said Mr. Farnworth. “This program is designed to foster a love of this work that may continue post-release.”

While participants won’t be riding the range when there time inside is up, the horse program is designed to put them back in the saddle with new job skills when they’re released from custody.

In addition to gaining experience caring for large animals, participating inmates commit to a daily routine and learn accountability.

Those are skills BC Corrections is hoping inmates will take with them when they leave. Inmates may be bringing grudges into the centre, but Mr. Farnworth said, the effort is to make sure those issues aren’t going home with inmates released after time served.

“There’s opportunity to deal with those kind of things here,” he said. “Whether it’s the counseling, for example, or the sweat lodge, the animal program, the skill set you can learn here — all of those things can help individuals when they leave to integrate into the broader community.”

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