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B.C. prison guards decry increasing violence, drone drops of weapons, drugs

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ABBOTSFORD, B.C. — B.C. prisons are facing a wave of violence unseen by even veteran correctional officers, spurred by drone drops of drugs and weapons, and the union representing guards says it’s worsening a mental health crisis among its members.

The Union of Canadian Correctional Officers said Wednesday that prisons have become “overwhelmed” by the surge in drone drops in correctional facilities.

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John Randle, a regional president with the union in the Pacific region, said Wednesday that violent incidents against guards have “exploded” across the country, including two “major” assaults that saw one officer in Ontario slashed in the back of the head with a razor blade weapon, and a guard beaten by a group of inmates elsewhere.

Those two incidents, he said, have galvanized the union, and members plan to protest outside the regional headquarters of the Correctional Service of Canada in Abbotsford, B.C., on Thursday over the escalating violence.

“It’s an attack on all fronts,” Randle said. “What we’re dealing with now is the drone drops, which have increased the ability for the inmates to get contraband into the institution. We’ve got weapons coming in that we’ve never seen before.”

He said drones have enabled inmates to access commercial knives, brass knuckles and large packages of drugs like fentanyl and methamphetamines, leading to inmate overdoses and violence over control of the contraband market behind prison walls.

“It’s kind of become the perfect storm,” Randle said.

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Randle said at least one prison in B.C. commonly has six or seven drone sightings a night on a typical weekend.

Technology to combat drone drops into prisons exists, but Randle said it hasn’t been implemented in prisons, including radar systems to detect drones that enter prison airspace, or technology to disable them or take control of them to combat drug and weapon drops.

The union said federal prisons in Canada recorded more than 9,100 violent incidents over fiscal 2022 to 2023, a more than 45 per cent increase from the same period the year before, and women’s prisons saw a near 69 per cent increase in incidents, while the prison population grew by less than six per cent over that time.

The Correctional Service of Canada did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Guards are hampered from holding inmates accountable for violence because they are no longer allowed to use “disciplinary segregation” to temporarily remove a prisoner from a unit if they are violent against other inmates or guards, he said.

Randle said lawsuits and human rights complaints have also changed the landscape in prisons, where authorities are fearful of liabilities, driving an approach that has disempowered guards from effectively dealing with problematic and violent inmates.

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“So, now what we’re facing is if an inmate stabs an inmate or an inmate assaults a correction officer, we used to be able to take them out and take them into display segregation,” Randle said. “And we’re struggling with getting criminal charges pressed against these inmates because we’re being told that either Crown or police or somebody says it’s not in the interest of the public to go after an inmate who’s in federal prison.”

“It’s created this situation where now inmates know that there’s not much a correction officer can do to correct the behaviour,” he said.

The union said in a statement Wednesday that its officers are “routinely” targeted for assaults, often leaving them with both “physical and psychological injuries.”

The statement said the uptick in violence against guards has caused a mental health crisis, and working conditions and the management structure at correctional facilities don’t support the needs of front-line workers.

Randle said they expect at least 100 members to rally Thursday outside the Correctional Service of Canada’s Pacific regional headquarters in Abbotsford.

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The protest is aimed at denouncing the violence faced by members, who commonly go home from work injured.

“We need policy put in place to support the front-line correction officers in providing the care, custody and control of inmates while holding them accountable for their actions,” Randle said. “That’s what we’re here for, we’re here to correct their behaviour. We’re here to eventually release these inmates into society as law-abiding citizens. That’s the mandate we took. That’s the oath I swore when I was a correction officer and we’re not able to do that right now.”

— By Darryl Greer in Vancouver

This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 17, 2024.

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