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100 years at the Wilkinson Road jail

The Wilkinson Road jail, with its castle-style turrets and crenelated battlements, has been in operation for 100 years this month.

The Wilkinson Road jail, with its castle-style turrets and crenelated battlements, has been in operation for 100 years this month.

But what many people don’t realize about the Vancouver Island Regional Correctional Centre is the heritage look is really just a front. It’s made of bricks and mortar, but it’s about as real as painted scenery in a movie shoot.

The front, with its medieval castle appearance, is the only existing part of the original building on which construction started in 1912. The rest of the original building was knocked down in the early 1980s and rebuilt.

Inmates are now housed in modern units constructed out of cinder block and completed in 1985. But that did not stop the National Historic Registry from designating the jail as a historic resource in 1981 — for its façade.

“That’s what’s so neat about the place,” said Phil Williams, a former corrections officer now working on a book chronicling the history of the Vancouver Island Regional Correctional Centre.

“It stands there looking the same as it did 100 years ago, but everything around it and inside it changes all the time,” said Williams.

“It’s a chameleon in disguise.”

But make no mistake, the Vancouver Island Regional Correctional Centre, 4216 Wilkinson Rd. — commonly known as the Wilkinson Road jail, or “Wilkie” by those who work or are incarcerated there — is definitely a prison.

It’s a maximum-security institution run by B.C. Corrections. On average, it houses 300 prisoners serving sentences or awaiting trial.

Being a provincial facility means no sentence can be longer than two years less a day. Sentences of two years and up are served in federal institutions, such as William Head Institution in Metchosin.

Provincial sentences are for lesser offences. But inmates on remand, like those denied bail or release while they await trial, can be facing charges of anything, including murder. It’s those inmates, now about 60 per cent of the total population, that demand the maximum level of security at Wilkie.

The maximum security fits B.C. Corrections’ first responsibility, now recognized as public safety, switched over from the rehabilitation mandate of the 1950s and ’60s.

“It has had so many roles and it continues to change,” said Williams. “As new priorities have come and different kinds of prisoners, the inside is constantly changing and evolving.”

According to a report prepared at the Royal B.C. Museum, the prison took its first prisoners, 38 of them, on Sept. 12, 1914.

It was officially known as the Saanich Prison Farm and its surrounding area comprised 10 hectares of land and its buildings were designed to house 140 prisoners. With its opening, overcrowded jails in Nanaimo and in Victoria, on Topaz Avenue, were closed.

The B.C. Construction and Engineering Company won the job with a tender of $100,000. Victoria architect William Ridgeway-Wilson completed the design.

Ridgeway-Wilson’s fondness for the castle look can also be seen in other Victoria buildings he designed — the Bay Street Armoury, 713 Bay St., and South Park Family School, 508 Douglas St.

All three buildings have been formally recognized for their historic value by the registrar of Canada’s Historic Places.

In the first days of its operation, the Saanich Prison Farm was a considerable distance from Victoria, so prison officials resided at the facility.

The first warden, John (Jack) Munro, lived at the prison with his large family. Munro was a veteran of the B.C. Provincial Police. He began his career in law enforcement as a member of armed escorts for gold shipments on the Canadian Pacific Railway.

When it opened, the Saanich Prison Farm was intended to house civilian prisoners only. But with the onset of the First World War in 1914, it took in military malefactors, along with others considered possible enemy aliens, even spies.

Most inmates worked — in a tailor shop, laundry or clearing the farmland, constructing outbuildings, and tending crops and livestock.

During the war, the institution also saw its only execution. Scottish miner Robert Suttie, 46, by court accounts a good man except when drinking, was hanged on a temporary gallows on Jan. 5, 1915, for shooting his foreman, Richard Hargreaves.

But in 1917 the cost of the war started to be felt even in B.C. The Saanich Prison Farm closed as a cost-saving measure. For the next two years the building and grounds were used to raise pheasants as game birds.

But in 1919 the facility reopened as the Colquitz Provincial Mental Hospital for the Criminally Insane. It would continue in that role until 1964.

Farm labour was considered useful therapy and at its height, patients built stables, fish ponds and even a tennis court. By the 1930s, the farm operation was producing 40,000 kilograms of vegetables and 3,100 kg. of meat annually.

Nurses had an on-site residence which became known as the Blue House. Following a brief local debate about its possible heritage value, it was demolished in 1992.

During its mental-illness period, the institution recorded perhaps its worst tragedy.

In 1960, one inmate escaped and stole a gun from a nearby farm. In a brief gun battle, Saanich Police Const. Robert Kirby was killed, the force’s only officer ever killed in the line of duty.

In 1964, the Colquitz Mental Hospital closed. The buildings were quickly renovated and the building reopened in 1966 as the Oakalla Prison Farm Vancouver Island Unit.

In 1971, the Vancouver Island Unit became the Vancouver Island Regional Correctional Centre.

Farm operations continued and grew. By the early 1970s, the centre was producing 9,000 eggs a week, managing a cattle herd of 300 and farming 166 hectares in various parcels.

But it failed to pay for itself and farming stopped in the mid 1970s.

Meanwhile, the 1970s and early ’80s were tumultuous.

Perhaps it was a reflection of what were by then — old buildings. Perhaps it was a growing sense, among inmates and the public, that loss of liberty was punishment enough — and conditions of incarceration should be humane.

In 1976, 20 inmates took two guards hostage, protesting conditions in the segregation unit, special cells used as punishment.

Segregation cells, known as “the hole” or “the digger,” were five-feet wide, seven-feet long and eight-feet high. They contained no windows, no furniture and no sink or toilet. Inmates were given a mattress on the floor, a blanket, a pot to urinate in and nothing to read, save the Bible.

In 1977, 10 inmates escaped pulling out the bars in the aging building with their bare hands. They were all recaptured shortly afterward.

But their escape route was simply boarded over, and in 1984, inmates rediscovered it. This time, nine made their way out through the same route.

In 1983, a wild plot to smuggle in gunpowder was uncovered.

In court later it was revealed the powder was intended for pipe bombs. One was to be set off as a diversion, another was to kill another inmate. A third was to blow a hole in a wall through which several inmates could escape.

Also in 1984, another hostage-taking occurred, this time using one of two handguns that had been smuggled inside. No demands were issued, but one corrections officer was shot in the arm.

Escapes were a frequent occurrence, averaging 22 a year in the early 1970s alone. Whenever an escape was discovered, a horn sounded, lights went on and police with sirens and dogs showed up.

With this kind of excitement, nearby residents began to complain. Saanich municipal council began to grumble, saying the surrounding area could become another Gordon Head if the prison lands were developed.

In the end, however, the province completed a $20.5-million renovation, preserving only the front of the old building. New wings were built behind the façade and in 1985, 208 new prisoners were transferred in.

Gone were the old-style barred tiers of cells with corrections officers on one side and inmates on the other. The institution switched to a living-unit arrangement with corrections staff locked inside each unit, alongside inmates.

It’s a system that was meant to break down barriers and lead to more effective communications. Negative incidents seeme to have diminished and the institution appears to have evolved into a peaceful neighbour. Since 1990, only three escapes have occurred and two of them ran off while on escorted excursions outside the facility.

Dave Johnson, executive director of the prisoners’ advocacy group the John Howard Society in Victoria credits the various wardens and staff serving at Wilkie.

“We have been so fortunate,” said Johnson, a 20-year veteran of prison work. “They have had some really, really good wardens out at Wilkie.”

He said the institution has also had success with a community advisory committee, which has representatives from the surrounding neighborhood, B.C. Corrections and inmates. And in the midst of cost-cutting, the institution always finds a way to provide programs and assistance to inmates.

Outside of normal inmate concerns common to any prison, Johnson said he hears few serious beefs. He thinks Wilkie will carry on.

“It was there long before the surrounding community was,” he said. “It’s got history.

“Unfortunately some people need to be held out of the public so they can get the help they need, and we need to protect society from some people,” Johnson said. “We need institutions like Wilkie.”


For Shauna Morgan, warden of the Vancouver Island Correctional Centre, the building’s preserved historic façade is a fitting metaphor for the prison.

Morgan loves its old-style appearance, especially the twin stone lions guarding the entrance. But they are not the real institution.

She says the real facility is composed of B.C. Correctional Service staff, 192 of them and 12 support. They are the ones who keep watch over the inmates and direct them in some of the innovative and constructive programs offered.

“What we are doing here has nothing to do with history,” Morgan said in an interview. “It’s not like we are an old building doing old things; we are an old building doing great things.

“So I take a huge pride in the staff here. This is not an easy job and it’s not for everybody.”

Morgan, who has been warden for 7 1Ú2 years, is part of a new breed of corrections officers. Today’s corrections officers — they’re not called prison guards — are as likely to be women as men and they undertake their roles with a modern sense of avocation.

Now, despite the Grade 12 minimum requirements, they are likely to have degrees in sociology or psychology. Morgan has two degrees from the University of Victoria and UBC and has worked in corrections for 26 years, beginning as a probation officer.

With the new living-unit model of incarceration, prisoners are no longer separated from the corrections staff by bars. Corrections officers are now locked in the units with the inmates, who are never left unattended.

So corrections officers have to be good communicators, but also constantly observant.

In most jobs, people can decide not to sweat the small stuff, Morgan says.

“In a jail, you have to always sweat the small stuff,” she said. “If you miss a single little thing, it can be a piece of what might be a serious concern.”

Corrections officers direct work programs, such the new bicycle repair shop, taking in found bikes to refurbish for donation to developing countries.

Unlike the old system, inmates are not required or compelled to work. But if one is spending all day in bed, corrections officers become concerned because it’s likely a sign of serious depression.

Corrections officers now have to be well aware of mental health. Proportionate numbers of inmates with mental illness has increased, ranging from addiction to severe delusional disorders such as schizophrenia.

Fred Hunt, a probation officer for three decades, said he believes the number of inmates with severe mental health issues has steadily increased.

In the meantime, actual jail sentences are being reserved more for convicts who are deemed a hazard to public safety.

Those who are deemed no danger spend their sentences in the community under supervision with condictions such as curfews and home arrest.

“The real story for corrections in B.C. has been the success of being able to supervise people in the community,” Hunt said.

“If a person can be in a minimum-security institution, then he should probably be in the community under supervision.”

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