If you want to see the inside of a jail but don’t feel like getting arrested – it’s your lucky day. One of BC’s oldest correctional facilities, Vancouver Island Regional Correctional Facility (VIRCC) is turning 100 this year, and I had the rare opportunity to tour this classic fortress, which is a lot more hi-tech and progressive than its medieval exterior lets on.
After handing over my ID, cellphone and wallet (all considered contraband) we were introduced to the corrections officer who would guide us through the facility (he can’t be named for security reasons – but he has my sincere thanks. I’ll call him Mr. C).
Shortly after we’d been cleared through security, a van of new inmates arrived.
Their handcuffs and leg shackles were removed and they were placed in a temporary holding cell while paperwork is drawn up for their admission.
Once their paperwork was complete, the inmates were escorted to a change room where they got cleaned up, were thoroughly searched and provided with their iconic red inmate attire. The personal belongings they came in with were catalogued, and securely stored for easy retrieval on their release.
Secure video conference rooms allow inmates to make court appearances without the extra time and cost of transportation and supervision to and from the court house.
After inmates have been thoroughly searched and dressed in their new attire, they may be temporarily held in a room like this one, while they await assignment to a living unit.
Let’s clear some stereotypes out of the way. Despite being a maximum security correctional facility, VIRCC is not the multi-tiered, cage stacked upon cage facility often portrayed in film and television. Composed of multiple ‘living units,’ inmates share a common area, complete with: kitchen facilities, phones, dining tables with board games printed on them, and colourful, brightly lit décor. Inmates are provided with three square meals a day, but may also purchase additional food from the commissary they can prepare themselves.
In some cases inmates share a cell, complete with shelving for food and other affects, a small TV and bunk beds. A window looks out onto the courtyard and provides natural light. While the concrete walled rooms give a much greater semblance of privacy than the iron-rod variety, windows allow officers to see every corner of the room, and walk throughs happen frequently.
Also attached to the common area is a small rec room with some basic workout equipment and a ping pong table.
A typical weight room and basketball court round out the recreation facilities.
Newly introduced this summer as a pilot project, the ICON II system is a first in Canada and gives inmates secure and easy access to legal documents, client histories, discharge dates and medical appointments – all at the touch of a fingerprint. This means inmates can easily get the information they need to help plan for the future, all while decreasing the load on administrative staff. There were several terminals throughout the facility.
The doors in VIRCC are colour coded by section, thick, heavy, and all controlled remotely from the control tower. As I was guided through the facility, Mr. C would buzz the intercom at each door, and after control verified the area was secure via video camera, the door opened with a deep, mechanical clank. I walked through what felt like 50 doors on the tour.
An inmate is moved from one section of the facility to another through the courtyard. Every movement in VIRCC is completely monitored and orchestrated. Cameras track every inch of the building and officers keep in constant contact with the control tower.
An inmates helps transport food from the galley to the living units.
VIRCC has greatly expanded since the original brick building was built 100 years ago. The main brick gate house maintains the classic fortress architecture of Col. William Ridgway Wilson (of Victoria’s Bay Street Armoury fame), while the other additions present a bright, clean modern look. Inside, administrative offices in the original building maintain the warm, turn of the century charm of the red brick exterior, but in 1985, a $24- million renovation completely overhauled the rest of the building to match the modern additions.
As much as correctional facilities are designed to keep the public safe from dangerous offenders, the end goal is rehabilitation – giving inmates the mindset, skills and tools to return as productive members of society. Traditional healing ceremonies are an important part of this journey for the First Nations inmate population – most have been through some pretty tough times before arriving here – healing the past is a major step to rehabilitation. A teepee designed and constructed by inmates provides a focal point for the ceremonies.
A non-denominational chapel provides a place of peace and learning for inmates. Group discussions are often held here.
Yoga classes provide another outlet for inmates to help find peace.
A couple of tomato plants are tended out in a small courtyard.
Many inmates turned to crime because they felt they had no other means of making ends meet. VIRCC works hard with inmates to help foster and provide skills that will help them land meaningful employment on their release.
An inmate puts together packets of condiments as part of the work program at the facility.
One remarkably successful program at VIRCC is the bike repair skills program. If inmates complete the program, they receive a bicycle repair technician diploma, and many have landed full-time jobs in bike shops in their communities after their release.
Inmates hone their skills on unclaimed bicycles from police lockups around the island – there’s no shortage. After the bikes are refurbished, the Compassionate Resource Society, a non-profit organization, ships most overseas to families in impoverished countries.
One of the corrections officers told me the inmates have taken to re-building the bikes with a specific style or trademark, so when photos get sent back of the bikes with their new owners, they can tell which bikes they worked on. “One guy always spray paints the handle bars pink,” says the officer. “It means a lot to them to see their work on the other side of the planet.”
Our society isn’t perfect. Mistakes are made by individuals, communities and government – but it’s important to always look forward, and learn from our mistakes. The correctional system has come a long way since VIRCC was built 100 years ago and BC continues to reform the justice system in our province to keep communities safe and help those that have learned from their mistakes get a new lease on life.
To learn more about the history of VIRCC, head to the BC Gov Newsroom
DISCLAIMER: Many of the photographs have been altered to obscure the location of security cameras, or to protect privacy. No other alterations besides basic colour/contrast/exposure have been made.