Nice place to visit

Liberal MLA Laurie Throness, parliamentary secretary to the minister of justice, speaks to the media in a living unut during a tour of the Okanagan Correctional Centre last year.

Two-thirds of the cells in the Okanagan Correctional Centre are now in place, but the jail guards who will work there are still awaiting concrete assurances about how their team will stack up against the inmates.

One year after the official groundbreaking in the Senkulmen Business Park just north of Oliver, the $200-million jail is now 60 per cent complete and on track to open in early 2017, according to project director Ted Howard.

 “And we are right where we want to be, in terms of budget and schedule,” he added.

To celebrate the construction milestone, officials from the Justice Ministry and private-sector partner Plenary Justice hosted local media for a tour of the facility Thursday.

Two of the three pods that will eventually contain a total of 378 cells are now in place.

Each pod houses four living units, most of which contain 36 cells. A regular cell is about five metres square and will contain two bunks, each with a long, narrow window to the outside world and a TV attached to the wall at one end, plus a desk, toilet and sink.

The pods were pre-cast in Spokane and shipped to the site by truck, while other concrete form work is being handled by a Kelowna company.

So far, the project has resulted in 13 local businesses receiving contracts worth a total of $115 million, according to figures supplied by the Justice Ministry.

Less firm, however, is the number of guards who will be looking after inmates at any one time.

“The inmate-to-staff ratios vary according to risk,” said Chilliwack-Hope Liberal MLA Laurie Throness, who’s also the parliamentary secretary to the minister of justice and was along for Thursday’s tour.

“So in a high-risk environment, there will be lots of staff. There will be almost like a 12-to-one ratio. In a very low-risk environment, the inmate-to-staff ratio will be higher,” he continued, “probably 40-to-one, but that’s mitigated by revolving other staff, like management, through units so (guards) are often not alone.”

Throness noted that security cameras will also be used to spot trouble, and “within seconds there can be a critical mass of qualified people converging on any one spot within a prison.”

But the union that represents correctional officers isn’t convinced those stated ratios will hold once the facility is in operation.

Dean Purdy, a spokesman for the B.C. Government Employees’ Union, said he’s been told the proportion of inmates to staff in living units could be as high as 72-to-one.

“From our standpoint, the violence isn’t going away against the officers,” he said.

“We’re continuing to see staff assaults (in other jails) and it’s going to be a big concern for us when this one opens.”

The inmate-to-staff ratio in B.C. was previously set at 20-to-one, although that cap was lifted about a decade ago, according to Purdy.

Common practice now is to put one officer in every living unit, according to a report on jail violence released by the B.C. government in 2014, meaning the 72-to-one ratio feared by the union could become a reality at the Okanagan Correctional Centre.

Regardless of the ratios, 40 per cent of the 240 correctional officers expected to work at the jail will be drawn from the local area, according to Throness, while the rest will transfer in from other B.C. jails.

“They’re government jobs with good pay and good benefits,” he added.

The ministry said 800 people attended the information sessions it hosted throughout the winter to prepare potential recruits for the application process.

Other jail-related statistics released by the ministry include:

-- Concrete trucks have so far poured out 12.7 million kilograms of product at the site.

-- A total of 1.7 million kilograms of steel and 1,300 kilograms of nails have gone into the build

-- Plumbing pipes installed to date stretch a total of 18.6 kilometres

-- Upwards of 375 workers have logged 100,000 hours on the job site

The ministry has not, however, indicated how much it will pay monthly to the Plenary Justice consortium to design, build, finance and maintain the jail over a 30-year span.

A freedom of information request for those dollar figures was denied and is now under appeal by the Herald.

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