City of Nanaimo axes prison guards and ushers in new practice of cross-gender guarding

NANAIMO – Nanaimo city council agreed in a 5-4 vote to axe four prison guard positions and bring in cross-gender supervision

Women put behind bars at the Nanaimo jail will no longer be guaranteed supervision by female guards.

Nanaimo city council agreed in a 5-4 vote to axe four prison guard positions and bring in cross-gender supervision, ending a more than decade-long practice of separate guards for male and female prisoners. The move will save the city a potential $360,000 each year and comes on the heels of a core services review recommendation.

This community sees 3,000 prisoners annually with approximately 27 per cent, or 800, being women and is the only city jail in the province with gender specific guarding, where women guard women and men guard men, according to police support services manager Mike Dietrich.

The rest of the province does cross-gender guarding, but this community pushed back in 2004 when the city attempted to bring in the practice. The issue came up again in 2009 as a cost-saving measure, but the city has maintained its gender-specific guarding, with a male and female guard on shift around the clock.

At an open meeting Monday, council voted down two options, both of which would have allowed the city to keep gender-specific guarding, and instead chose to cut four guard positions.

Councillors Wendy Pratt and Diane Brennan argued the city keep its practice of gender-specific guarding for the dignity of women. It’s a practice that distinguishes Nanaimo from other cities and isn’t something to be ashamed off, according to Brennan, who said it’s not about how men or guards behave but how a woman feels in a situation where they are compromised, vulnerable and observed in that state by a man.

Pratt said she knows people get so sick of the argument about balance of power but it’s true and all we have to do is look on Facebook or at the presidential goings on in the U.S.  to know real imbalances exist in this world and women are vulnerable.

Other councillors, however, pointed out that other communities haven’t implemented cross gender guarding, and talked about using dollars toward preventative measures.

“I don’t have a problem being progressive, I just think other people should follow and if they are not following, I don’t know if that’s called progressive or stupidity,” said Coun. Jerry Hong, who said another RCMP officer could be put on the road for $360,000, or money could go to the Haven Society for harm education. He pointed out that the city had 800 women in prison last year and said it’s on track for 800 women this year, questioning what’s being done differently. It bothers him that no progress is being made with what’s done right now, he said.

Coun. Gord Fuller, who supported same-gender monitoring in 2004 and 2009, did not support the motion to stay with same-gender monitoring Monday.

“I had a lot of hope back then that the agencies that came and supported it as well were going to go out to the province, were going to go out and try to make this an issue Canada wide but that never happened,” said Fuller.

He also said “we have to stop the women from coming into the jail system” and the potential savings could be set to doing some of those things.

Coun. Jim Kipp said he wants to look at the effectiveness at the program, with questions about if its made women feel better or if they notice if there’s a man or woman. He also talked about using money to help people before they arrive in jail.

Pratt agreed prevention is important and if council ends up voting for the first option, shown in the staff report as cutting guards, she’d hold every one of their feet to the fire to spend the $360,000 on women’s issues.

“But that isn’t what we’re talking about,” she said. “We’re talking about human dignity and the rights of women.We are talking about a person who is drunk or on drugs and lying on the floor naked and people are observing her. I don’t want it to be a man.”

She said she doesn’t want it to be a man if it’s her 15-year-old granddaughter 13 years from now gets into trouble and is drugs and is laying on a floor in a cell.

“I don’t want a man looking at her. That is what we’re talking about right now.”

Dyane Brown, president of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, at the meeting with member Barbara Johnston, said they are devastated by the decision.

“They were totally dismissive of the women who were in the jail they were talking about keeping them out of jail,” she said.

The talk about remedial programs was a whole different discussion, said Johnston, who referred to the decision as saving money off the backs of the most vulnerable.

Ann Taylor, executive director of Haven Society, said at the heart of the issue is human rights and preserving human dignity no matter the circumstance, so the decision reflects it’s not a stand council is prepared to take, and that is a disappointment. She believes an important safeguard has been lost.

“I think there’s a real lure of this idea that we can save $360,000 and use that for something else, that’s deemed somehow more important,” she said, adding it’s an inherent flaw in how decisions are made.

Dietrich couldn’t say when the city would see the change to its guards, adding that there are labour relations issues that need to be resolved.