'We knew it was going to happen': warning signs ignored at prison before escape, guard says
VICTORIA -- A correctional officer who has worked at William Head Institution for almost a decade is speaking out, saying warning signs about violent inmates were ignored and the most recent escape wasn’t the first time.
CTV News Vancouver Island is protecting the identity of the correctional officer as he fears he could be fired for speaking out.
There are about 170 inmates at a given time staying on the 87-acre property. Here, prisoners get to walk freely, go to the gym and can easily walk around an eight-foot fence off the property.
“We call it beachfront condos for cons,” said the officer.
James Lee Busch, 42 and Zachary Armitage, 30, escaped from the minimum security prison on July 7, 2019. They were caught two days later, but not before allegedly killing 60-year-old Martin Payne. They were charged with first-degree murder in Payne’s death earlier this month.
“We knew it was going to happen,” said the officer. “Busch had constant issues. We reported them on a number of occasions and they were ignored. It was building to something.”
According to the officer, Busch was having issues with his housemates and even sucker-punched one of them. Both of them were violent offenders before coming to William Head.
“We did believe, thoroughly, that he didn’t belong there and we voiced it,” the officer said of Busch. “His behaviour was deteriorating.”
After multiple complaints were made and concerns were voiced to managers, Busch wasn’t transferred and the pair stayed at the facility.
“When someone has so many things adding up, we would have expected him to be transferred,” the officer said. “The system failed.”
The union representing officers at the prison says it has heard complaints like this for years.
“For us employees, we are always accountable for our actions and decisions. Managers should be held at the same standard, if not higher because they’re the final decision-makers,” said Derek Chin, regional pacific president for the union.
The officer claims the facility is more concerned with filling beds than keeping a community safe.
“Correctional service is a business more than it is really about keeping the public safe,” he said.
Overrides are sent to the William Head facility from medium-security prisons. The officer claims about 10 per cent of inmates are there on overrides. Both Armitage and Busch were sent as overrides from Mission Institution.
“It’s not a one-off,” the officer said. “We’ve had a number of overrides where we have concerns over the years.”
Most people think William Head is a blue-collar jail that only houses weekend drunk drivers, the officer said. In reality, there are “lifers” there for various heinous crimes, he said.
“Rapists, child murderers, murderers, gang members, all kinds of different individuals with different backgrounds,” he said.
An eight-foot fence surrounds the property and officers are not allowed to carry handcuffs or protective spray, so the fence doesn’t intimidate inmates, the officer said.
“Usually, we think it is one of us that is going to be assaulted or killed even,” he said.
CTV News contacted the Correctional Service of Canada and was told the questions were received, but did not receive a response before deadline Wednesday.
On Thursday, CSC provided a written statement emphasizing the importance of safety to the service's mission, describing keeping Canadians safe as "at the core of what we do."
"We recognize the impact the escapes have had on the community and we are committed to working with everyone to address their concerns and further improve the way we safely manage offenders," CSC said.
The statement also addressed the role of employees in helping to maintain public safety.
"We take the views and input of our employees seriously and have processes in place for addressing incidents and complaints," CSC said. "CSC recognizes the challenges associated with working in a correctional environment and is committed to providing a workplace that is conducive to the health and safety of all of its employees and inmates. We also consult and work collaboratively with union partners and employees to address any safety and security issues on an ongoing basis. Violence is not tolerated in our institutions and each incident is examined to prevent and reduce future occurrences. Employees also have a duty to document and report any violence or concerning behaviours they witness. Disciplinary action can be taken, as needed, and criminal charges can be laid against those involved in violent incidents."
At William Head, specifically, CSC notes that "employees were involved in helping to inform and implement improvements to local policies and processes following the escapes."
"WHI has established a standardized process for reviewing offender risk-related information, documenting it and sharing subsequent assessments and decisions in a timely manner," CSC said.
Still, the officer feels not enough is being done.
“They speak a lot about public safety, but the public is not as safe as they should be,” the officer said.
Since the escape last year, CSC has relocated nine inmates – including Armitage and Busch – to medium-security facilities. It has also said it will conduct more head checks. The officer is calling for the original barbed-wire fence to be brought back and said more security is needed.