City jail cell renovations complete

New cells designed to reduce risk of potential harm to prisoners, RCMP guards.

Citizens who find themselves spending some time in the city’s jail may notice the smell of fresh paint, but a number of significant improvements have been made during a four-month renovation project that will improve inmate and RCMP member safety.

The work brings the city-owned RCMP jail into compliance with federal RCMP standards published in 2012, though the city had been notified in 2008 by RCMP headquarters in Ottawa that required improvements would be necessary, mostly as a response to inmates who tried to or successfully committed suicide while in police custody in other jurisdictions.

Suicide is always an issue in cell blocks,” said Nanaimo RCMP spokesman Cont. Gary O’Brien, while giving the media a tour of the renovated facilities Monday. “These new standards are a response to incidents in jails that have happened nationwide.”

The scope of the work includes: removing metal bunks and replacing them with concrete bunk pads (inmates are provided a thin mattress and blanket if staying overnight); replacing traditional metal bars with sliding doors; installation of non-slip floors; removing any physical hazards, such as sharp corners, within the cell; improving the prisoner booking area; and improving cell monitoring stations and guard work areas.

Before there was physical separation of male and female cells, and now we also have virtual separation,” said O’Brien. “Only female guards monitor female prisoners, and only male guards monitor male prisoners.”

The new surveillance system comes into compliance with the Police Act, which requires municipalities with a population more than 5,000 to provide “adequate accommodation, equipment and supplies for the detention of persons required to be held in police custody.”

The upgrade cost came in at $810,652. Nanaimo city council set the money aside in its 2009 budget.

Of the 12 newly refurbished cells, eight are dedicated for male prisoners while four are reserved for female. The drunk tank, which can hold several people at once, has also received standard upgrades.

About 3,000 people annually spend time in Nanaimo’s cells. Most are there for a few hours, but some stay as long as a week to await a court appearance.

The jail closed Feb. 2 to begin the renovations and reopened Tuesday, ready to accept new prisoners. As the renovation began, prisoners had to be shipped to Parksville, Duncan and Ladysmith as directed by the Prisoner Management Plan.

“If you bring a guy in for being drunk, say we hold him for eight hours in Ladysmith. But if he’s from Nanaimo do we just let him go in Ladysmith? There were a lot of logistics involved,” said O’Brien.

The cells are used for the detention of people arrested by the RCMP as well as for prisoners in custody of B.C. Sheriff Services and by federal agencies such as Immigration Canada.

The Nanaimo RCMP detachment was built in 1987 with the most recent upgrades to the jail cells, new sprinkler systems, completed in 2002.

In 2005, the RCMP conducted assessments of all RCMP-used cells in Canada to determine compliance with current standards as prescribed by the commissioner. The review identified cell blocks that needed to be redesigned to reduce the incidence of detainee suicide by eliminating hanging points; to protect against building damage; to prevent the creation of weapons by inmates; to protect against the concealment of weapons and contraband; and to optimize viewing of prisoners in the cells.