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British Columbia B.C.’s overcrowded prisons endanger inmates and staff, auditor-general says

B.C.’s Auditor-General notes that safety and security incidents in prisons have nearly doubled in the past five years.

JONATHAN HAYWARD/The Canadian Press

British Columbia's overcrowded prisons endanger both inmates and staff, and a number of core programs designed to keep prisoners from reoffending have failed, according to a new report by the province's Auditor-General.

The findings from Carol Bellringer's audit of provincial adult custody facilities, released Tuesday, echo the calls by the union representing British Columbia's correctional officers, which has long voiced concerns about the dangerous conditions brought on by overcrowding.

In 2013/2014, nearly 16,000 people were admitted into B.C. correctional centres, divided about equally between those who were sentenced and those awaiting trial or sentencing. Population growth and the closing of 10 provincial facilities in 2002 contributed to "extensive double-bunking in cells"– almost all of which were designed for single occupancy, the audit found.

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British Columbia's nine correctional centres averaged 140 per cent occupancy, with individual centres ranging from 107 per cent to 177 per cent, according to the audit. Despite planned expansion projects, occupancy is still projected to be about 121 per cent by 2022/2023, with 35 per cent of inmates being double-bunked.

"Prison overcrowding increases risk to both inmates and staff and contributes to the potential for conflict," Ms. Bellringer said in a media conference call after the release of her report.

"Although the adult custody division inspects, assesses risk and monitors and reviews critical incidents regularly, it cannot demonstrate whether operating its prisons at these capacity levels provides for safe custody."

Safety and security incidents have nearly doubled in the past five years, she noted.

The audit also found that while the division offers core programs to inmates designed to reduce reoffending, only 15 per cent of offenders surveyed fully or partially completed those programs. Further, only one of five core programs offered – on violence prevention – was shown to be effective in reducing reoffending, according to internal evaluations.

In a separate conference call with media on Tuesday, Justice Minister Suzanne Anton refuted the claim that British Columbia's correctional facilities are at 140 per cent occupancy, insisting they are currently at 116 per cent. The government has made "an extremely significant capital commitment," Ms. Anton said, which includes a $185-million expansion plan and the forthcoming $200-million Okanagan Correctional Centre.

Still, the minister said the province will adopt the Auditor-General's eight recommendations, which include developing ways to assess trends in safety and security and forecast facility space and program needs.

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A B.C. government report released last month found that, in the past five years, assaults on prison staff increased by 18 per cent; inmate injuries increased by 70 per cent; and violence between inmates varied by institution but increased by nearly 50 per cent at North Fraser Pretrial Centre. That report stated that there were 211 assaults against staff across all of British Columbia's nine correctional centres in the past five years.

Dean Purdy, chair of the Corrections and Staff Services component of the B.C. Government and Services Employees' Union, said he believed the government's statistics were conservative, and that union figures show 244 assaults against staff in the past five years at three correctional facilities alone.

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