The Oakalla jailbreak

JANE O’HARA January 18 1988

The Oakalla jailbreak

JANE O’HARA January 18 1988

The Oakalla jailbreak


On Dec. 29, following a series of riots, officials at British Columbia’s notorious Oakalla provincial jail in the Vancouver suburb of Burnaby placed 15 inmates in a dungeon-like segregation unit known as “the hole.” They were not there long. Three days later, according to the prison’s official version, inmate Bruce Gordon McKay unlatched his cell door with a sock weighted with peanuts and tied to a strip of ripped bed sheet. Sliding his arm through a food opening at the bottom of his Plexiglas cell door,

McKay flicked the sock repeatedly at a long iron latch at the side of the door. When the sock finally caught, McKay yanked down on the bed sheet, springing the latch—which was supposed to have been fastened with a further locking mechanism. The door opened. When one of the two junior guards on duty passed by, prison officials said, McKay put a home-made knife to his throat and used his keys to release the other prisoners. Two stayed behind. Thirteen climbed a prison fence to freedom.

Within a week, the RCMP had rounded up most of the escapees— three of them in a local bar and others at nearby homes of their relatives and friends. By week’s end, only four remained at large. But the breakout revived public controversy about the British Columbia jail system and especially Oakalla. Built 74 years ago, Oakalla—the Lower Mainland Regional Correctional Centre—is the oldest and largest B.C. jail. It normally houses about 400 male convicts, 21 per cent of the provincial prison’s population, and for decades it has been the site of riots, escapes, fasts and suicides. A four-wing red-brick structure with peeling paint, decaying walls, rats and lice, the prison has been

repeatedly condemned by critics as barbaric and inhumane. Said Vancouver prisoners’ rights advocate Clare Culhane: “Oakalla is a dirty hole. In all my experience with prisons I’ve never seen anything as bad in terms of just plain, rotten misery. It’s not surprising this happened.”

The controversy was compounded when one of the escapees—since recap-

tured—appeared in an interview on BCTV on Jan. 2 and said that Oakalla guards had been drinking. As well, at least one former inmate questioned the official version of the escape. The exconvict, who lives in Vancouver but refused to be identified by name, said it was unlikely that the prisoners could have obtained knives because prisoners are strip-searched before being placed in the hole. “You don’t get anything in

there,” he said. “They strip you of everything—tobacco, matches—you have nothing.” He also noted that the men could only have escaped if both the steel outer doors of the cells and the safety latches on the Plexiglas doors were unlocked.

Last week B.C. Attorney General Brian Smith appointed Vancouver county court Judge Ian Drost to investigate the

breakout, the biggest ever in the province. As inquiry commissioner, Drost will have to sift through a mass of accusations and counteraccusations. The British Columbia Government Employees’ Union, which represents the prison guards, has blamed government costcutting measures, which resulted in staff shortages and stressful working conditions, for the breakout. In turn, the prison management has obliquely

blamed the guards. Said prison director René Gobillot: “We have one per cent who just don’t quite fit in.”

Drost’s inquiry, due to be completed by the end of February, will also look into the policy of the corrections service on reporting escapes to the public. That issue flared when robbery convict Heathe Thompson telephoned CBC Radio news, reported that he and two others had escaped from Oakalla on Dec. 11 and said that he found it strange that the escape had not been reported.

According to B.C. Corrections Commissioner Bernard Robinson, in the past three years between 20 and 26 inmates have escaped from Oakalla annually, far more than at other provincial jails. Said Robinson: “Our position is that the security requirements of the prison population at Oakalla are not met.” That ad-

mission caused concern among the 145,000 residents of Burnaby. Last week, the district council voted unanimously to ask the government to inform citizens if there are prison breaks, suggesting either sounding a siren or going door-todoor. But officials defended their policy of alerting the public only if the prison director decides that the escapees constitute a threat to the community.

The latest escape began with a riot.

On Dec. 27, guards apprehended inmate David Dean, 30, for talking during religious services. In a scuffle with guards, Dean received a cut over his eye that required seven stitches to close. Escapee Terry Hall, 23, told BCTV that guards fought with Dean again when they brought him back to his cell. A group of 50 prisoners then began setting fires and pulling toilets and sinks from the walls. According to prison officials, 44 cells were damaged, causing an estimated $80,000 to $100,000 damage. The following day, inmates began rioting again when they were not allowed out of their cells into the common area. According to inmates, guards sprayed them with fire hoses, opened the windows and turned off the heat. Later, 200 inmates in the east wing joined in the disturbance, but a 14-man tactical squad with tear gas quelled the outbreak. On Dec. 29, guards began moving inmates in the south wing to other cells. The worst troublemakers were placed in the segregation unit.

Corrections officials at first refused to answer questions about the escape. However, Hall provided a graphic picture of conditions inside Oakalla during the controversial BCTV interview which he initiated while he was still at large. Said Hall, who had served eight months of a threeyear sentence for armed robbery: “You could smell the booze on the guards. You can only push people so far and this was pushing us right to the limit.”

When the station broadcast the interview, Attorney General Smith denounced it as “an alltime low in journalism in this province.” Smith said a “reputable news outlet” would not have interviewed a fugitive and agreed not to disclose his whereabouts. But BCTV news director Cameron Bell declared, “The station has a responsibility to bring to the public information on matters of public importance.” Politicians have been promising to close down Oakalla prison since 1962. But the latest riot and breakout have added new impetus to the idea, and the Social Credit government of Premier William Vander Zalm has restated a pledge to close Oakalla by 1991, when three new facilities will be completed in the Vancouver area to house Oakalla’s 400 inmates. Until then, prisoners and guards will have to endure the hardships of life in the province’s most dangerous jail.