A group of correctional officers smile and share pleasantries as an exclusive tour of Surrey Pretrial is set to begin. Those smiles quickly fade and those officers begin sprinting as an alarm pierces through their laughter.
“Code yellow is a standard emergency,” explains Correctional Supervisor Jason Hafso, as the others rush to respond. “It’s an officer in need of assistance due to threat of violence, or violence. It can range from anything like inmates fighting to a staff assault.”
As the officers disappear down the hall, Hafso gestures to lead the Now-Leader on a tour of the maximum-security remand centre, the largest in the province that sees 17,000 “movements” annually. An average of 400 inmates are housed on a typical day, though it has capacity for more than 750.
Through locked door after locked door, the drab walls and long hallways are what one might expect to find inside a prison.
“We are a bit of a maze at times,” says Hafso.
Stopping, he points out a window to the original tower that opened in 1991 that he estimated originally held about 200 inmates decades ago.
An expansion opened in 2014 that added more than 200 cells through two “pods” – one east, one west.
“The pod system was designed as a central control with units surrounding it,” Hafso explains, standing in this command centre, which provides an almost bird’s eye view of various living units. “Each pod has a supervisor, each pod has support staff assigned to it, then you have the unit officer. Pods are the larger units at Surrey Pretrial, there’s the potential to have a staff ratio of 72 inmates to one officer.”
The system is modelled after those created in the U.S., he says, designed to limit the amount of time inmates come out of their units.
“When inmates are moving around unsupervised or in corridors where there’s the potential they could bump into inmates not in their unit, there’s an increased chance of conflict. So the initial design was for that. As a result, in the pod units, each unit has its own programs room where they can conduct any sort of programming ranging from substance use management to yoga.” The pods also have a concrete, connected yard for inmates to run laps, play games as well as a small weight room.
Hafso says corrections has “really shifted toward rehabilitation” since the original centre opened in 1991, “pushing towards giving these guys something they can work with when they get back out.”
He says they’ve also “put it back on the inmates” in Surrey, with men in two units pledging to resolve their differences without violence.
“There’s a focus on mediation if there’s arguments or issues that are happening on the unit. We’ll attempt mediation instead of seeking more of the traditional disciplinary approaches like segregation.”
Hafso laughs when asked what led to him joining corrections.
“Do you want the real answer?” he replies, explaining his career began soon after graduating from the University of Victoria in 2008 with a bachelor of arts in psychology. He had trouble finding a government job, and stumbled across a newspaper ad for BC Corrections.
“I thought my background in psychology might come in handy here, maybe I can help change some lives. I put my name in and to my surprise I was successful. Here I am now, 12 years later, so it was very much by accident.”
“There’s bad days and there’s good days,” he muses. “As correctional staff, we have a very dark humour, a jaded kind of look on a lot of things but at the same token, this is life.”
“It’s interesting, there’s always something new you have to deal with. Ultimately you’re working with people so it’s very dynamic.”
Officer Hammond (whose first name has been withheld due to safety concerns) says before joining corrections he had a vision of what jail was.
“We all watch TV or have heard stories about what happens within these walls. We make up ideologies in our minds that inmates are locked up for 24 hours a day, they eat meatloaf three times a day, are placed in segregation for speaking out of turn, and although we have protocol and a strict lock-up schedule, I can assure you this is nothing like the TV show 60 Days In or Beyond Scared Straight.
“We are no longer a warehouse.”
The tour is rather unique for the correctional facility, Warden Lyall Boswell explains.
The warden has opened the jail doors to Surrey’s mayor and council, many community partners as well as the Now-Leader in the hopes of creating more partnerships.
“When the whole gang discussion was going on and the city was setting up its task force and everything, we realized we’re not part of this discussion, and that’s not a criticism of the city. It’s a criticism of us. We haven’t reached out and made ourselves known to people,” Boswell tells the Now-Leader, sitting in his office at 14323 57th Ave.
“They leave through that front door,” he says, pointing, “and you see them going on the street and sometimes you think, ‘I don’t think that’s going to go very well,’ and other times you think, ‘Okay, it’s good to see him going, he looks happy and that’s great.’ But our mandate is to keep communities safe. I think we can best meet that mandate by actually being a better partner to the city.”
Boswell nods as he acknowledges there can be “a lot of darkness” inside the prison’s walls.
“We have a lot of people with severe mental challenges, and the courts place them here because there’s often nowhere else for them to go. We have a mental health team, we deal with everything. If there’s been any serious crime south of the Fraser River and they’re arrested, they come into custody here. Everyone. That’s the full gamut all the way up to the most sensational awful murder.”
And of course, that list includes those involved in gang life.
“It’s a very different dynamic from someone who’s had a tragic life of abuse and is now coping with trauma through drugs,” he says.
“A lot of the gang people tend to have very antisocial personalities. And so we need to make sure that those antisocial personalities are addressed but also not allowed to infect the rest of the jail.”
The prison sees an over-representation of Aboriginal men, and the overall population tends to spike in the winter months, as a warm bed and three meals a day is a better option for some who live on the street.
Rehabilitation is top of mind for Boswell and the remand centre currently has 16 programs where inmates can work to earn money: From a Premier’s Award-winning woodshop that has created everything from carvings to a canoe that took more than 1,500 hours to complete, to a tailor program that provides blankets for the First Nation courts. Boswell explained he sees the remand period as the “prime time to intervene” and offer this programming.
“It could be learning a foreign language. It could be knitting…. We need the community’s help. We need to network ourselves. It can help make sure that the next time they get out, they’re more successful. And of course the more successful they are then society benefits,” he says. “Yes, people come and go and come and go. Our job is to make sure as much as we can that the next time they go it’s going to be more successful and hopefully they won’t have to come back.”
Recruiting officers is another goal of the warden, who’s officially been at the helm since the summer of 2018 after serving for an interim period.
“We offer fabulous, challenging, rewarding jobs here and they’re in Surrey. We want people who’ve never thought corrections was for them. I could recruit 20 more people tomorrow if I could find suitable, mature candidates,” he says. “The creative things we want to do require extra staff. If we have an officer is running a unit, we can have a case manager or a program support officer who could be helping on that unit, but also allow them to interchange roles.”
Boswell didn’t play down the challenges of the job, but said it can be incredibly rewarding as well.
“You’re a part babysitter, part psychologist, part school teacher, part therapist. You’re part law enforcer because there are times when things get nasty here. It’s such a diverse range.
“You can’t feel challenged without having challenges. So that means there’s good and bad. It’s true. That’s where the rewards come as well.”
Dean Purdy is a union representative for B.C.’s correctional officers and says recruitment and a retention are problems for virtually all of the province’s prisons.
“We’re running a campaign to look at the violence – inmate on correctional officer, and inmate on inmate violence at all seven maximum security prisons. Surrey Pretrial is right at the top of the list when it comes to assault on correctional officers,” said Purdy, vice-president of Corrections and Sheriff Services with British Columbia Government Employees Union. “There were 124 assaults on correctional officers in 2018, that’s a record year for B.C. The Surrey Pretrial Service Centre alone had 29, which was a record year for them.”
Purdy said this is on top of traumatic incidents officers witness, such as overdoses, suicides and vicious assaults with homemade weapons.
Prior to 2002, the provincial government capped the officer to inmate ratio at 1:20, but today those numbers go as high as 1:72.
“Those numbers just aren’t workable in today’s environment. We have more and more inmates with mental health issues, gang members, inmates who have to be housed alone, and the drug situation inside our jails is just at all-time high.”
Purdy said two officers per living unit would be a better ratio.
“It gives immediate backup, mental and psychological support, working with a partner,” he said. “B.C. is the only province where one correctional officer works alone in a living unit.”
Purdy categorizes working at a maximum security jail as “probably the most stressful out there.” He says rates of PTSD among correctional officers are “on the rise sharply.
Inmate-on-inmate “slashing” incidents with the use of razor blades inside jails is something that’s “trending province-wide” right now, he noted.
“It’s all very challenging. Recruitment and retention challenges are severe to say the least.”
NEXT UP: In part of two of this series, we look at some highlights of Surrey Pretrial’s history since its opening in 1991.