Tuesday night’s riot in the Burnaby youth custody centre was the result of an unstable and increasingly violent prison population, according to the union representing correctional officers.
Dean Purdy, from the B.C. Government and Service Employees’ Union, said the six-hour riot was likely gang-related and pre-planned.
“We know the Lower Mainland is having a real gang problem. Well, we’re seeing that spill over into our prisons, not only into adult but in the youth facilities as well,” said Purdy. “We think the riot last night was a direct results of that.”
According to Purdy, the unrest started at about 8:30 p.m. on Tuesday and ran for about six hours, until about 2:30 a.m.
“What we were told, seven to 10 inmates in one living unit started rioting, smashing up tables, chairs, dishwashers, microwaves, everything they could get their hands on,” Purdy said. “From there they moved into breaching through the door of the officers’ station. They made their way into the officers’ station, smashed computers, officers’ equipment, desks, chairs, and then moved on to the second unit that runs adjacent to the first one and did the same kind of damage there, causing floods, breaking sprinkler heads and setting several fires.”
Purdy said the youth inmate profile has changed.
“The type of inmates we have in there right now are more violent. They are more unstable. There’s kids with mental health issues, and that is a big concern for us, because kids with mental health issues do not belong in a correctional centre.”
The prison is designed to hold about 60 inmates, and there are roughly 50 incarcerated at the moment, according to Purdy.
Purdy said the most officers can do when inmates break the rules is give them a timeout of two hours maximum.
“Management is going with a more therapeutic approach, a more holistic approach, to violations of the correctional centre rules and regulations, and it’s not working,” Purdy said. “Something’s got to change because the type of inmate we have inside - not only our adult facilities but our youth centre - is not even like what it was like five years ago. There’s more inmate-on-inmate violence; there’s more inmate-on-officer violence, and something’s got to give.”
According to Purdy, there have been several assaults on officers who have been punched, kicked and spat upon. “Now one of the themes they will do is throw feces or urine on the officers. Times are changing. Something needs to give before someone is seriously hurt,” he said.
Purdy also said he was not surprised about the riot, as the correctional officers sensed tension leading up to the outbreak. However, no one was injured, and no one escaped.
Police attended the riot, and the Burnaby Fire Department was called in to deal with a small fire.
Assistant fire chief Bryan Kirk said the call came in at 1:36 a.m. on Wednesday.
What they found was some youth had barricaded themselves inside one of the living units.
“We got there to find there was some flames showing in the window. Somebody set a fire that was on the windowsill. I’m not sure about the riot part,” he said, adding police were on the scene first.
Once it was deemed safe to enter, the firefighters met with prison staff.
The door was barricaded shut with the inmates inside.
“They had broken furniture and whatnot. I guess it was a bit of a riot,” he said. “They had access to lighters, … and someone decided to light the place on fire.”
Kirk said firefighters put out a couple of small fires. Usually when inmates start fires in their cells, guards let them sit under the sprinklers until they are wet and cold and have had enough, Kirk said.
Andrew Cronkhite, the prison’s program director, disputed the union’s claim.
“While a union spokesperson has linked this incident to rising tensions at the site, it’s important to note that the Burnaby centre holds monthly occupational health and safety meetings with staff, and there have been no grievances about safety in the workplace, nor has the union brought these concerns directly to the ministry,” Cronkhite said in a statement released by the Ministry of Children and Family Development.
“Further suggestion that the closure of the Victoria Youth Custody Centre is somehow linked to this incident is misleading, given the fact that the youths who were involved in this incident are from the Lower Mainland and the Interior and would not have been housed on Vancouver Island,” he added. “The Burnaby centre is fully staffed and is currently at only 51 per cent capacity, with a total of 43 residents. The primary motivating factor behind the incident appears to have been a room search earlier in the day, which resulted in a loss of privileges. Based on interviews with those involved, there is no indication that rival gang tensions were a root cause of the dissention, as some have suggested publicly.”
He also said the youth started the fire by putting paper in a toaster.
The NOW has called the Burnaby RCMP, but no one has replied. Burnaby’s Youth Custody Centre is at 7900 Fraser Park Dr., close to the Fraser River in South Burnaby.