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Rights + Justice

Death in Remand: A Jail Crammed with Risk

Guards say North Fraser Pretrial Centre where John Parker was killed by the cellmate he feared is like other remand facilities: dangerously crowded. Fourth in a reader-funded series.

Richard Warnica 24 May

Journalist Richard Warnica has been a senior editor for The Tyee and a staff reporter for the Edmonton Journal and Canwest News Service, and writes for Maclean's. He received a reader-funded Tyee Investigative Reporting Fellowship to support him in researching and writing this series.

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'Overcrowding has created a pressure cooker situation in which violence levels have risen significantly,' says Dean Purdy of the B.C. Government Employees Union.

[Editor's note: To read the previous parts to this series, click here.]

Katrina Cody knows a little something about life inside. Over the years, she's been in a where's where of Canadian lockups: Surrey Pretrial; B.C. Women's; Edmonton Remand -- not long ago, she finished two and a half years in a federal prison for robbing a bank. So when Cody talks about prison life, about the fights and the food and the drug-sick cellmates, she speaks from experience. And that experience was rarely worse than when she was sharing a cell.

Double bunking has always been a problem in Canadian jails. But over the last decade, the problem in British Columbia has become markedly worse, especially in remand facilities, the overcrowded provincial jails where prisoners are kept while they await trials. Cody's been in fights with cellmates. She's had her nose broken. She's had to give up the few things -- some makeup, a little canteen money -- she was allowed inside. But while double-bunking was always bad, she said, it could be downright Dickensian in remand. "Girls [in remand] are coming right off the street," Cody said. "A lot of them are dope sick... God knows what they've got."

Remand centres in B.C. weren't perfect a decade ago. But since 2002, a series of policy changes have made them worse. Much worse, according to guards and prisoners alike: more crowded and less well guarded, more violent and less corrective. Many guards now say their jobs are not safe. Prisoners complain of poor health care, violent cellmates, and substandard living.

Perhaps most explosively, rules on who is confined with whom have become looser, creating dangerous mixes. "You're locked in a cell with two bunks a toilet and a TV -- always two people, sometimes three if it's overcrowded," said Jen McMillan, a former inmate in Surrey Pretrial. Violence, she says, is inevitable. "You treat people like animals, they're going to act like animals."

Remand tensions in B.C. reflect a larger national problem. The jails here are neither the best nor the worst in the country, although some say they are the most overcrowded. But since 2002, they've become a lot more packed. And, guards and prisoners say, a lot more dangerous.

In February of that year, the B.C. government slashed the provincial corrections budget. Beginning in 2002, the ministry responsible closed 10 provincial jails and consolidated prisoners in the remaining centres. Camp-style facilities for lower-risk inmates and the well behaved were shuttered. Educational and rehabilitation programs for offenders were reduced. Remand centres were retrofitted to cram in more inmates.

Double bunking, once the exception, became the rule, a practice which violates the United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners, which dictate that untried prisoners sleep singly in separate cells. At the North Fraser Pretrial Centre in Port Coquitlam, cells built for a single prisoner were converted to allow two. The jail's maximum capacity, set at 339 when it opened in 2001, was lifted to 669. An extension was built at the Surrey Pretrial Centre in 2004 to allow female prisoners to be housed on the same compound as males. The jail's maximum capacity, set at 150 when it opened in 1991, was raised to allow hundreds of new inmates.

All of this while the number of prisoners entering remand in B.C. was going up. The combination -- more prisoners in fewer cells -- created a fully predictable crunch. North Fraser has been so crowded at times in recent years that prisoners have slept on floors, in a gym and even in tents.

The pressure grew even worse in 2006. That year the Vancouver Jail, a remand centre on the Downtown Eastside, was closed, and the prisoners there re-routed to North Fraser. That meant more inmates, sure. But for some it meant tougher cell mates too: more detoxing drug addicts and more of the mentally ill. Today, prisoners in B.C remand centres are younger, more volatile and more likely to be involved in gangs than they were 10 years ago. In other words: harder to guard, and harder to keep safe.

Half the guards

That's doubly true when you consider that, on a per capita basis, there are now fewer guards overseeing more prisoners in B.C. Before 2002, the government had a strict limit on the number of inmates a single guard could supervise. After the cuts and consolidation, many units were left carrying twice their previous loads. To stay within its own guard-to-inmate ratio cap, the government would have had to hire more staff.

Instead, it changed the ratios. In Feb. 2002, the government more than doubled the allowable inmate-to-guard ratio, from 20-to-1 to 45-to-1 -- effectively halving the number of guards overseeing any given prisoner population. By the government's own admission, the change meant less investment in "programs and treatment" and greater concentration on security by force.

The result, guards and prisoners agree, is a rougher atmosphere with less rehabilitation. "It's filthy. It's overcrowded. People are herded around like cattle," said Jen McMillan. "It's just purely punitive warehousing."

Decisions on who bunks with whom have also been less about safety and more about putting people wherever there’s space. During court proceedings related to John Parker's death, one guard testified that the North Fraser Pretrial Central is usually so full the only priority is just to make sure everyone has somewhere to sleep. Considerations about who bunks where, or on what unit, often get tossed aside.

That can lead to more prisoner-on-prisoner violence. But it can also make life harder for guards.

Even before the cuts, jail guards faced the highest risk for on-the-job violence of any workers in B.C., according to the Worker's Compensation Board. After 2002 it only got worse, according to the guards themselves. Many who spoke to SFU criminologist Neil Boyd for two large-scale studies of working conditions inside B.C. jails identified the main culprit as overcrowding. (See sidebar.)

More prisoners in less space are a danger to everyone, guards told Boyd. It increases violence among the prisoners and makes them more likely to lash out. A comment that one guard told Boyd he often heard was, "If you give me a roommate, someone is going to get hurt."

Closing camps and community centres caused further problems, guards said. It took away the carrot for good behavior, and forced together inmates from different security levels.

Contested impacts

The government argues that a crowded jail is not always a more violent one. And studies on violence and bed counts -- the number of prisoners in a jail at any given time -- are mixed at best. For this story, The Tyee asked the B.C. government to provide documents that touched on violence and overcrowding at either the Surrey or North Fraser Pretrials. To each request, the government responded with a single, heavily redacted study.

The report on North Fraser detailed the changes that went on in the jail in the early years of the last decade. It noted the significant increase in prisoner counts and changing complexion of the prison population; an increase in short-term stays and volatile inmates. The document also contained the results of study that compared prisoner numbers with violent incidents over a two-year period between 2004 and 2006. The study found no direct correlation between daily bed counts and violence. A similar study conducted in Surrey Pretrial in 2005-2006 had similar results.

Those results are a bit misleading, though. The studies looked at two years in two already overcrowded jails. What they did not look at, was violence before and after double bunking became de facto policy in 2002.

What's more, the North Fraser document contains an admission that the data for that study might not be reliable. Inmate counts at North Fraser "make it difficult to document inmate behavior," the report says. In other words, there are so many inmates confined that it's hard to keep track of what they're doing, violent or otherwise.

That's especially true inside a locked cell. Asked if she ever reported an attack by a cellmate, Katrina Cody just laughed. "You go to the staff, you say something, you're getting it again, right?" she said. "Then there'll be even more stuff. You know, you're buying that person's canteen for the entire time they're there. There's all kinds of stuff that goes on like that."

Guards, meanwhile, have no doubt that overcrowding has made things worse. "All the anecdotal information we've received from our members, from correctional officers who work in facilities, is that overcrowding has created a pressure cooker situation in which violence levels have risen significantly," said Dean Purdy an official with the B.C. Government Employees Union.

'I'm afraid all the time'

Purdy said overcrowding at North Fraser is so bad that a single guard is sometimes alone with as many as 60 inmates. With that ratio, just keeping track of who's coming and going is hard enough. Keeping everyone safe is another question entirely. "I used to look forward to work," one guard told Neil Boyd. "I now hate it and am afraid all the time."

Violence isn't the only issue. Many inmates come to remand right off the street, often still coming down from their last high. They have the kind of health issues that are endemic among the poorly housed. With overworked staff and too many inmates, getting medical treatment inside can be a hassle, or simply impossible.

Some recovering heroin addicts say they sometimes wait days to get their methadone. (See sidebar.) Other inmates speak of being regularly exposed to tuberculosis and other communicable diseases. "They may test them for it [TB]," said Katrina Cody. "But by the time those tests come back, you've been up on the unit with them for 48 hours."

There are some signs the government has recognized the problems in the remand system. In July 2011, it signed an agreement to build a new 216-cell Surrey Remand Centre. The province also has plans to build a new 360-cell remand centre in the south Okanagan.

But it's also important to note that these problems are not exclusive to remand. Violence, poor health care and overcrowding are problems across the B.C. jail system. The guards who spoke to Neil Boyd, meanwhile, came from across the provincial corrections system, not just remand.

But the pretrial system is unique, and the problems within it are, to some degree, more serious and troubling.

For one thing, prisoners on remand are legally innocent. The pretrial system was designed to provide a temporary way station for them while they await their day in court. Yet many prisoners now stay for weeks or months at a time, warehoused in conditions often described as barbaric, and without receiving any kind of "correctional" programming.

Remand prisoners are also, by far, the fastest growing inmate class in Canada. Over the past 30 years, the total number of prisoners incarcerated has stayed relatively steady, while the number of remand prisoners has soared.

Tomorrow in The Tyee, we'll look at some of the reasons behind the explosive growth in Canadian remand rates since the 1970s, and what they mean for prisoners and the system.

A preventable death

But first, back to John Parker.

Recall from previous stories in this series that the diminutive Parker was beaten to death by his cellmate at the North Fraser Pretrial Centre in Port Coquitlam, in Jan. 2008. Official reviews largely cleared the jail and its guards in Parker's death. But those reviews all but ignored the systemic problems that contributed to the tragedy.

B.C.'s remand jails -- like North Fraser -- are overcrowded because the government decided they could be. In 2002, the B.C. Cabinet took money out of the system knowing that decision would mean more double-bunking and less supervision. By 2008, almost everyone in a B.C. remand centre was sharing a cell with at least one other prisoner.

Only in a system like the one those decisions created, a system under extreme stress, would it be regarded as normal, and even "by the book," to bunk a mentally-ill 57-year-old not much larger than an adolescent with a violence-prone weightlifter less than half his age. But that was the system we had in B.C. in 2008. It is the system we still have today.

The reviews said there wasn't much guards could have done to prevent Parker's death. And that may have been true on the last night of his life. But it doesn't mean his death couldn't have been prevented. "There used to be a lot of people who were non-double-bunkable," one guard told Neil Boyd. "Now, everyone is double-bunkable."

Even John Parker. That, maybe more than any other factor, is why he is dead today.  [Tyee]

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