Thursday, August 4, 2011

On Institutional Responsibility and Overcrowding

This week I traveled in Vancouver Island, BC. In Victoria, I was handed the local newspaper, the Times Colonist, which on Page 4 (!) reported of a prison protest in the Wilkinson Road Jail.

A 30-prisoner standoff broke out in the Wilkinson Road jail Thursday night after prisoners decided an inmate had been denied hospitalization and proper medication.

The inmate has liver cancer and hepatitis C, said Camille Davis, whose boyfriend, Samuel McGrath, is in the same unit as the sick prisoner.

Around 9 p.m., 30 inmates refused to be locked up because they said the issue wasn't being addressed, said Dean Purdy, a corrections officer supervisor and chairman of the Corrections and Sheriffs Service for the B.C. Government and Service Employees' Union. The B.C. Corrections Branch could not be reached for comment.

The result was a 25-minute standoff by the 30 inmates, who wanted the ailing prisoner to be sent to hospital, said Davis.

After the standoff, the sick prisoner was taken to hospital.

It would be rather simplistic to ascribe the differences between this coverage of this incident to the CA newspaper coverage of the Pelican Bay hunger strike, but nonetheless, I can't resist noticing four peculiar things:

1) Page 4? This Victoria Jail is, apparently, not invisible to the public.

2) Coverage is decidedly sympathetic to the inmates and reports of their success. Note - this is a protest, not a "riot", and the beginning of the story expands on the inmate's medical condition and the urgent need to hospitalize him.

3) The first interviewee is the girlfriend of one of the inmates. I don't recall seeing any CA newspaper being the least bit attentive to inmate families.

And, 4) - the big shocker - here's what the correctional authority had to say about the protest:

"We're severely overcrowded and it only stands to reason that when prisoners are incarcerated under these conditions, stress and agitation levels of inmates are going to be very high."

Wilkinson and eight other provincial jails are operating at 180 per cent of capacity, said Purdy.

He said the overcrowding increases the risk of violent behaviour, escape and deteriorating working conditions for correctional officers.

Overcrowding promotes a "mob-like mentality," he said. "It's a recipe for disaster."

Does anyone recall a current holder of a correctional position in the US offering such mild commentary about an inmate protest?

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