B.C. Prisons Crowded, Unsafe, Hardly Stop Repeat Crime: Report

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British Columbia's jails are overcrowded, unsafe, tension-filled facilities that fail to prevent inmates from returning to crime when released, concludes an audit by auditor general Carol Bellringer. | Andy Sacks via Getty Images
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VICTORIA - British Columbia's jails are overcrowded, unsafe, tension-filled facilities that fail to prevent inmates from returning to crime when released, concludes an audit by auditor general Carol Bellringer.

In a 32-page report released Tuesday, Bellringer said inmates, staff and the public are at risk and the government must develop goals and targets to achieve safe and secure prisons that reduce criminal behaviour.

B.C. Attorney General and Justice Minister Suzanne Anton said the government is committed to addressing the audit's eight recommendations.

It found B.C. jails — which held 16,000 people last year — are operating at 140 per cent capacity, with more than half of the inmates sharing cells meant for one person.

Despite regular inspections, assessments and reviews, the Adult Custody Division can't adequately prove its prisons provide safe custody, Bellringer's report said.

"Overall, we found that the division’s lack of attention to performance management, evidence-based decision making, and offender programming increase the risk to inmate, staff and public safety," the audit said. "More attention to these areas would increase the likelihood that the division directs time and money into programs and facilities that are effective."

Provincial jails succeed in providing accommodation for inmates, but little else because only one in five programs offered has been shown to cut repeat offences, the report said.

"Our audit found a major failure," Bellringer told reporters on a conference call. "Inmates are not receiving the programs they need to reduce their risk of reoffending once released."

Her audit found the government is not measuring the effectiveness of its programs, many of which are there to rehabilitate inmates.

"It has no framework in place to drive the planning, implementation and evaluation of offender programs," the report said. "It has not determined whether it has the right number and type of programs in place to reduce criminal behaviour."

The government hasn't analyzed the inmate population to identify current and future program needs, it said.

Anton agreed the government must do a better job measuring the outcomes of its inmate social programs, especially those geared to reduce criminal behaviour, but vocational training programs within corrections facilities show excellent results.

Late last year, Liberal backbencher Laurie Throness completed a report that recommended jails introduce more apprenticeship training programs in order to offer inmates skills they can use to find work once they are released.

The minister said that tracking performance measures of inmate programs will be high on the agenda. However, she noted that many inmates are only in custody for relatively short periods and don't sign up for the programs.

"They are voluntary, so people have to be motivated to be wanting to take them," Anton said.

She said safety of inmates and staff is the top priority at the facilities.

The audit noted that safety incidents at B.C. facilities increased 97 per cent in the last five years.

"Both safety of inmates and safety of staff, this is the No. 1 concern for our team in corrections," said Anton.

The audit concluded B.C. jails will remain overcrowded even with the addition of 800 new cells at the Surrey pre-trial centre and a new facility in the Okanagan.

New Democrat justice critic Mike Farnworth said the report raises serious concerns about the government's commitment to its corrections system. He said it appears the government is not keeping a close watch on the protection of staff or the programs designed to help inmates.

"If you are not planning on providing programs to reduce criminal behaviour, and those that are not even sure they are the right programs, what on earth does that say about your commitment to public safety?" said Farnworth. "It seems they are more concerned about their political safety than they are about public safety."

The B.C. Government and Service Employees Union called on the government in a statement to implement the Auditor General's recommendations to ensure jails are safe for inmates and staff, and to reduce safety risks to the public.

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