The fires burned through the night. The early morning drizzle brought a contingent of blue-helmeted RCMP, German shepherd guard dogs and soldiers, ending the most ex-
pensive prison riot in British Columbia’s history. Half of Matsqui medium-security prison was burned by inmates in a frenzy of destruction out of all proportion to the dispute that led to the riot: dissatisfaction with new pay scales that ended the overtime and bonuses of some privileged inmates working in the kitchen. Five months later, the debris has been cleared away, and a shrunken population of inmates is back in cells that are still being rebuilt at a cost of $5 million. Eleven prisoners face trial on mischief charges and three of them are also accused of arson.
The 184 inmates spent a rainy summer and fall in tents on the prison yard, complaining about cold food (the two meals served each day had to be brought from a nearby psychiatric centre) and leaking roofs. (Another 118 inmates were transferred to other institutions or were released.) However, the camp-out had its advantages: the inmates were given free run of the grounds after dark, while guards maintained security outside the razor-tipped wire surrounding the tents. Most inmates liked this form of self-government, although attacks during the night left one prisoner stabbed to death and two others badly beaten and sent to hospital. On their infrequent sweep through Tent City, guards found weapons and huge quantities of home brew made from leftovers—180 L in one search alone.
Finger-pointing was widespread in the weeks following the riot. Robert Gibb, president of the Inmate Committee, said that the guards panicked when the disturbance began and could have confined it to the kitchen if they had acted more quickly. Al Hadvick, a guards’ union representative, agreedup to a point. He blamed the administration for refusing to let the guards use tear gas. Federal Solicitor General Robert Kaplan defended the administration’s actions and warned Matsqui’s irritated neighbors that a riot could happen again.
Security changes at the prison make
that less likely. Fences make it more difficult for inmates to move quickly from place to place. The three-storey building where the prisoners now live will have a separate entrance on each floor. These changes make Matsqui a hybrid prison, more like Kent, a nearby maximum-security institution where an uprising last summer was easily contained.
Before the riot, Matsqui was known as one of the most liberal and innovative prisons in the country. People living nearby complained that temporary absences and day parole were too easily granted by “soft” administrators,
while rehabilitation supporters praised the programs that offered university credits, apprenticeship courses and a theatre workshop. All these perks went up in smoke with the prison buildings. Temporary absences have been stopped, visits to inmates have been greatly reduced and the critically acclaimed theatre program is in limbo.
The shock of recognition that a riot could—and did—happen here has altered the mood at Matsqui. “We might have been deluding ourselves into believing that this sort of riot could only take place in a maximum-security prison,” said Jack Stewart, regional prison spokesman. “After it happened we had a lot of sorry, sad inmates who would have liked nothing better than to turn back the clock.” That’s never possible. Today Matsqui prison, once the hope of prison reformers across Canada, is a place where both inmates and staff regard each other with fear and suspicion. -MALCOLM GRAY
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