B.C.’s biggest jail, located in Oliver, is reaching only 20 per cent of its capacity despite an increase in intakes.
Penticton council shared disappointment Tuesday, March 21, over the lack of clarity in a provincial report intended to indicate how many prisoners at the Okanagan Correctional Centre (OCC) have been released in Penticton since the beginning of last year.
Council received the data last week, following a notice of motion from coun. Helena Konanz in November 2022.
Local politicians toured the facility in January and issued a Freedom of Information Request to the B.C. government one month later.
Although the report — sent from the office of deputy premier Mike Farnworth — indicates most of the released prisoners are sent back to their own communities, council wasn’t satisfied with what they received.
“If you look at the data that has been sent to us in 2022, the intake in the prison is actually increasing every month,” said coun. Helena Konanz. “But the releases themselves don’t actually match that.”
Coun. Isaac Gilbert later noted that varying sentence lengths impact the intake-to-release ratio.
“It’s not a one-for-one,” Gilbert explained. “When people go into prison, they’re going to serve different lengths of time.”
But the lack of capacity at B.C.’s biggest jail remained council’s primary sticking point. Coun. Ryan Graham said he asked the warden how many were currently at the jail. There are 167 inmates currently. The jail can hold a capacity of 800.
The OCC became the province’s biggest jail in 2016, opening to a price tag of $200 million and becoming the first facility of its kind to be built through a private partnership on First Nations land.
“We have a facility 35 minutes down the street and in my humble opinion, it’s an embarrassment that we can’t use it to its potential,” said Graham.
At Tuesday council meeting, staffing shortages at the OCC were attributed to the lack of capacity.
According to the data, 263 of the 716 inmates released in 2022 were sent to communities that weren’t where their court cases were held.
Instances include people from other communities who were released in Penticton for reasons like picking up impounded vehicles or fulfilling housing arrangements like going to Discovery House after release.
There were five months in 2022 when intakes were more than 100.
“I am not impressed with the level of disclosure that we received,” stated coun. Amelia Boultbee.
Boultbee says on her count, conservatively, there were at least 15 cases where individuals from the OCC chose to stay in Penticton.
“At this point, the data shows that we are the ringleaders for what is going on in the Okanagan,” Graham added. “Our judges really need to start supporting this community.”
On the contrary, the report also shows several instances where individuals arrested in Penticton were dropped off in different communities, upon release.
At its peak, pre-pandemic, OCC held a total of 342 inmates, less than half of the facility’s capacity.
Council also learned that staffing shortages are forcing the $200 million facility to downsize, with several wings of the prison not open.
Mayor Julius Bloomfield is set to discuss the data with Farnworth, during an upcoming visit to Victoria about the issues of community safety.
“I think there’s a lot of pointed questions that can be asked and we can continue to be vigilant as a council,” Konanz said.
Konanz was supported in November by her fellow councillors, with the exception of Gilbert, in asking the province for data regarding where OCC inmates are released.
Local politicians have sent an open invitation to the warden at the OCC, Debby Rempel, to speak on public record at a future council meeting.