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Jails a ‘Club Fed’ for prisoners, says former prison nurse

Lydia Saunders has collected pages of signatures on a petition asking for changes to make criminals more accountable for their actions, and to end their
Lydia Saunders has collected pages of signatures on a petition asking for changes to make criminals more accountable for their actions, and to end their 'Club Fed' treatment in prison.
— image credit: JENNA HAUCK/ PROGRESS

It’s criminal what’s going on behind prison walls in Canada, says Lydia Saunders, a former prison nurse at Mountain Institution in Agassiz.

“It’s a big Club Fed for men who commit crimes, with no consequences,” she said in an interview recently with The Progress.

“We have had American prisoners who often state how great it is to be in prison in Canada ... it’s like a vacation,” she said.

Meanwhile, prison staff are subjected to a daily barrage of physical intimidation, complaints and abuse from prisoners in which the scales of justice are tipped heavily in the inmates’ favour, she said.

“Everything is about the inmates’ (rights),” she said. “It’s got nothing to do with making them better (citizens).”

Saunders said she left Mountain prison after working there for more than three years - earning an employee of the month citation last February - because of the emotional stress of what she called unsafe working conditions.

The last straw for Saunders came last November when she found herself alone with a convicted murderer “two inches from my face,” she said, who was then implicated in the death of his cellmate two days later.

“What was this criminal with six life sentences doing in a medium-security prison?” she asked. “And why was he in a lab without a (corrections) officer right there beside me?”

A freedom of information request by The Progress asking why inmate Michael Wayne McGray was transferred from the Kent maximum-security prison to the medium-security Mountain facility was denied by Corrections Canada for security reasons.

No charges have been laid so far in the death last November of 33-year-old Jeremy Phillips, who was at Mountain serving a nine-month sentence for aggravated assault.

A corrections spokesman initially said an official had agreed to an interview limited to the health-related aspects of Saunders’ allegations, but the interview never took place.

The Progress decided to publish Saunders’ story because of the large number of correctional employees in this area, and because crime and punishment had become an election issue.

Saunders spelled out her views in a long March 21 letter she sent to Warden Mark Kemball at Mountain prison, Commissioner Don Head at the Correctional Service of Canada, and to the leaders of each political party.

Gord Robertson, regional president of the Union of Canadian Correctional Officers, said he could not comment officially on Saunders’ personal views.

But he said there has been a “huge change” over the years in the type of inmates coming into prison.

“The guys coming in are younger, who don’t have respect for anything,” he said. “It seems to be a change across the country.”

But for staff to file a complaint and get something done about an abusive prisoner requires “a delicate juggling act,” he said, because of the rights bestowed upon prisoners.

“They can get away with a lot, but we sure can’t,” he said. “The only right they don’t have is mobility.”

Saunders said prisoners have a “huge sense of entitlement” to “kid-glove treatment” and are on the phone to their lawyer at the slightest provocation.

“It’s just beyond ridiculous what goes on in our system, and nobody stands behind the staff,” she said.

One prisoner couldn’t get the kind of shampoo he liked, Saunders claimed, “so he went and got his lawyer involved.”

She said some inmates have simply quit halfway through a treatment program for hepatitis C, which cost $22,000 per treatment, and then are allowed to restart the program when they feel like it.

“The inmates are handed everything free - (eye) glasses, dentists, every medication you can think of - and they don’t contribute one cent for any of this,” she said.

Yet many law-abiding seniors can’t afford the medications they need or the groceries to sustain a healthy lifestyle, she said.

“These guys, they just say the word and they get what they want,” she said. “Totally, crime pays.”

Saunders finally left the corrections system behind, but she felt compelled to go public with her story, and to start a petition with an email address at canadianschangingjustice@mail.com

“I’ve got to speak out, I’ve got to let people know what’s going on,” she said.

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