Compromise on gender-specific guarding rejected

NANAIMO – Motion would have cut guard positions, but kept female guard on call.

A proposed compromise on the supervision of women in city cells was rejected by city councillors, who said it wasn’t good enough.

The compromise, which would have seen female guards on call when male counterparts were on shift, failed with Nanaimo city council locked in a tie vote Monday.

Council eliminated four prison guard positions last month, ending a more than decade-long practice of women guarding women and men guarding men. The move followed a core review recommendation, which estimated the city could save $360,000.

On Monday, Coun. Gord Fuller put forward a bid to reconsider the motion with tweaks, such as scheduling a female on-call when a man is on duty, directing staff to monitor and report back on the guarding process in a year, and working with RCMP around implementation of it. Prison guard positions would still be cut, leaving one person scheduled every shift.

Chief administrative officer Tracy Samra could not guarantee huge cost savings.

Fuller said his motion addressed concerns brought up in delegations and “gender specificity,” adding if there’s a woman in cells there would always be a woman guard. He also pointed to a lack of statistics and information since 2004, when gender-specific guarding was a community issue, and that during the next 12 months council will get information.

Politicians were divided on the motion, with some considering it a compromise with the chance to gather data and information, while others wanted a return to the status quo, citing concerns such as the time it would take a woman on-call to get to cells and having one employee alone on shift.

“I’m not sure I could accept this,” said Coun. Ian Thorpe, who considered it only somewhat better and not good enough. He wanted to maintain the status quo with staffing and gender-specific guarding, calling the safety of guards and equality and dignity in cells important, and wanted to avoid job losses.

“I think any cost savings that might be found through this core service review recommendation is nebulous and not worthwhile,” he said.

Coun. Diane Brennan called the status quo the only reasonable option and that ‘on call’  was not immediate enough, adding jail tour participants were told it could take up to an hour from the RCMP officer’s initial call to try to find someone.

But Coun. Jerry Hong said it’s a good system, everybody does on-call and they can have the best of both worlds.

Coun. Bill Bestwick said the motion was defeated and it was brought back with compromise, to put a system in place over the next 12 months that allows for facts, data and information and council to make other and better decisions than it made two weeks ago. He also said it will ensure there is gender-specific guarding.

“It behooves me how we are only accepting of the way that it was, not the way that it could be,” said Bestwick, who didn’t understand why the motion was not acceptable and told council to “be careful.”

Coun. Wendy Pratt said it’s not acceptable because the reason the program was stopped was to save money and to try to change it to something different than that now is “a bit false.”

“For others to say be careful what you ask for, that kind of makes me wonder what that statement means. If I don’t vote for this, I get nothing?” she asked. “What I want is for this program to stay in place as it is and then to look at new ways of making it better. I am not voting for a compromise.”

The motion failed in a 4-4 vote, with Mayor Bill McKay, Pratt, Thorpe and Brennan opposed, leaving council with its original decision. Coun. Bill Yoachim was absent.