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Prison-escape alert system went silent when residents didn’t ‘buy in’

An automated notification system similar to one requested in Metchosin after violent offenders escaped from William Head minimum-security prison in July was set up in 1997 and then disbanded.
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William Head Institution in Metchosin.

An automated notification system similar to one requested in Metchosin after violent offenders escaped from William Head minimum-security prison in July was set up in 1997 and then disbanded.

“When given the opportunity to buy in, they bought out,” Bob Mitchell, a citizens representative on William Head’s advisory committee, said of the system. “Generally speaking, people didn’t think it was that marvellous.”

It turns out that residents who were anxious after a rash of prison breaks at the then-medium-security institution and called for a better notification system “didn’t like getting calls in the middle of the night,” said Mitchell.

Mitchell has a long history with the prison — from having served time in it in the 1970s for marijuana possession to his position on the advisory committee and his former role as a Metchosin councillor. He once penned a paper on the prison’s security for the Correctional Service of Canada.

Concerns about violent offenders, prison security and notifications such as those that were raised after James Busch and Zachary Armitage escaped the minimum-security federal prison on July 7 are nothing new, he said.

Back in 2001, William Head administration said it was considering calling West Shore RCMP about prison breaks earlier. That’s after police complained that they weren’t called until 11:22 p.m. on June 4, 2001, after a prison break at 10 p.m. that night.

Bruce Brown, a staff sergeant at the detachment at the time, called it a “public safety and officer safety issue.”

In the most recent escape, surveillance cameras showed Busch and Armitage leaving the prison at 6:45 p.m. on July 7, but the escape was not discovered until 11 p.m., when Correctional Service of Canada staff did a head count.

The correctional service notified West Shore RCMP at 1:15 a.m. on July 8 — two hours and 15 minutes later. The correctional service told the public at 6:21 a.m. July 8 with postings on social media. The RCMP followed with a news release at 10:45 a.m. on July 8.

The men were recaptured on July 9 in Esquimalt. But then news broke that Metchosin’s Martin Payne, 60, who lived eight kilometres from the prison, had not shown up for work on July 9, 10 or 11. His truck was discovered in Oak Bay on July 9 and his body was found in his home on Brookview Drive on July 12. Police have not linked Payne’s death with the escape, but some family members have publicly called for answers about whether there is a link.

The Correctional Service of Canada is the agency responsible for public notification in the case of an escape, said West Shore RCMP Cpl. Chris Dovell in an email, while police are responsible for finding escaped inmates.

Metchosin Mayor John Ranns has said communication with his municipality was not as good as it could have been.

He is reviewing with the prison, fire department and Metchosin Emergency Program how to alert the public in a timely manner, while keeping in mind the need to avoid unnecessary panic. Staff need time to check if a prisoner is simply hiding in the prison and hasn’t really escaped, for example.

Metchosin Fire Chief Stephanie Dunlop said William Head and the correctional service “have not taken this lightly and they are making active changes to provide the community what it wants and is expecting.”

In the late 1990s, there was disagreement about how to deal with community notification for escapes.

Some residents near the prison demanded prompt notification, while others felt none was needed, since inmates would theoretically leave the area quickly.

When the notification system was eventually created in 1997, a recorded message or fax was automatically sent to designated homes and businesses if there was an escape.

West Shore RCMP provided application forms for those wanting to be on a call list which would send notificatons at any time of the day or night, or a secondary call list, which could be tailored to send calls only during the day. It’s unclear what eventually happened to the call list.

Today, Metchosin’s Emergency Program website (metchosinemergencyprogram.ca) allows residents to add their names to an emergency notification list. Since the escape in July, more people have registered, said Dunlop, the only paid member of the Metchosin volunteer fire department.

There are two levels of the alert notification system, which goes out via email for all types of potential threats, including prison breaks, fire updates, wind warnings and road closures, and via phone for imminent dangers such as tsunami warnings and hazardous spills, for example.

Filtering those notifications so a local resident would receive only prison-escape information, or so tsunami warnings only go to residents in areas likely to be affected is a lengthy process, but it’s underway, said Dunlop.

“It can’t happen overnight,” she said. “The entire emergency program is volunteer, so we’re doing what we can to tailor it.”

Some wonder why the whole community can’t be sent with a blanket alert, but Dunlop said that involves not just special technology but permission to use people’s private contact information. “I don’t have the capability to do that.”

There’s also a balance to consider, she said, between informing people and creating unnecessary panic.

And there’s another problem: Neither the Metchosin Emergency Program nor the fire department is authorized to send out notifications without first getting authorization from the correctional service or police.

“It’s not my right to send out that information at 2 a.m. — it has to come from the police or corrections,” said Dunlop. “It’s not cut and dried.”

Dunlop said officials are still trying to determine what residents want so they can provide a better system soon. “It is one of our top priorities.”

ceharnett@timescolonist.com