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Saturday, 24 March 2012

Two Hells Angels charged in the same murder case, Robert Thomas and Norman Cocks, suffered cuts and bruises in two separate fights with other gang-linked inmates.


Two fights involving gang members at the North Fraser Pre-trial Centre in the last week have escalated tensions inside the over-capacity institution. Two Hells Angels charged in the same murder case, Robert Thomas and Norman Cocks, suffered cuts and bruises in two separate fights with other gang-linked inmates. Thomas got into a punch-up with accused killer Matthew Johnston, who is charged in the Surrey Six murder case, on March 15 at the Port Coquitlam institution. Thomas was knocked out, but not taken to hospital. Johnston, who police say is a member of the Red Scorpions, was not injured. Two days later, Cocks was in a fight with Stephen Matheson, an prisoner charged with robbery who has gang links. Cocks had his nose broken and was taken to hospital for stitches, but is now back at the pre-trial centre. B.C. Corrections official Marnie Mayhew confirmed that police were not called in to investigate either of the assaults. “In those two cases, that was the decision that was made,” she said. “At the end of the day, if the individuals involved are not interested in pursuing criminal charges themselves, as is often the case with individuals in our custody, it is a decision that is made by the centre’s management as to whether or not to call the police in to investigate.” But the union that represents correctional officers says tensions between rival gangs are escalating in North Fraser and other B.C. jails, making the situation dangerous and volatile for staff. Dean Purdy, of the B.C. Government and Service Employees’ Union, said jail managers are not treating the violence seriously enough. “These types of assaults are very serious and in fact could be viewed as attempted murder in some cases, but aren’t always dealt with in this manner,” Purdy said. “The gang activity has been on the increase inside our maximum security jails and it is a concern because of the staff safety and all the implications about fallout after attacks like this and retaliation.” With staffing-prisoner ratios as high as one to 40 in North Fraser, it is difficult to keep warring groups and individuals away from each other, Purdy said. He said his members believe that if the jail used a system of “rotational lock-ups,” things would be safer. Right now inmates are only locked up when guards are on break — a half-hour for lunch and two 15-minute coffee breaks per shift. “Inmates are not locked up, but are free range in the living units coexisting with each other throughout the day,” Purdy said. “A solution to this is to go to rotational lock-ups, allowing half of the inmates out at a time and giving our correctional officers a tool to better manage the many different prisoner population groups.” But Mayhew said there are already systems in place to manage more volatile inmates. They can be placed in more secure custody inside the jail, she said, where the ratio of staff to inmates is as low as one to 10, supported by supervisors and other staff who come and go from the units. Even when there is no criminal investigation, she said, internal disciplinary measures are taken that can lead to sanctions such as loss of privileges. Mayhew said prisoner-on-prisoner violence has remained steady or decreased at North Fraser and across B.C. over the last four years. In 2008 at North Fraser, there were 264 incidents of violence between inmates, including threats, fights and assaults. Of those, 168 were prisoner-on-prisoner assaults. In 2011, there were 217 incidents total, with 143 assaults, Mayhew said. Purdy said the numbers don’t tell the whole story. “The profile of the inmates has been changing over the last five years. The type of prisoner we have now is a more violent prisoner, a younger prisoner and a more gang-affiliated prisoner,” he said. “And the violence is becoming far greater. There is also more violence against our staff.” At North Fraser alone last year, there were 40 attacks on correctional officers, he said. Other institutions are experiencing similar violence. A guard at the Fraser Regional Correctional Centre had feces thrown at him last week, Purdy said. Similar attacks have been on the rise in recent months, as have been “hot butter” attacks, where inmates heat up oil or margarine in a microwave and throw it in the face of another prisoner. North Fraser was built in 1999 for 300 inmates. It now averages about 550. Mayhew said the construction of new provincial jails has already eased overcrowding over the last year. And when more new units open later this year and in 2013, the situation is expected to improve even more. “When you have a significant number of people with violent histories in custody together, there will always be a risk of violence that is present,” Mayhew said. “We will never be able to eliminate all prisoner violence. We do everything we can to mitigate the risk of violence.”

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