Metchosin Mayor John Ranns says until Ottawa stops sending higher-risk violent criminals to the minimum-security prison in his community, he can’t assure residents are safe in the face of prison breakouts.
James Lee Busch and Zachary Armitage, who escaped William Head Institution on July 7, have each being charged with first-degree murder related to the death of resident Martin Payne.
Ranns said good police work has been done and some positive changes have been made, but he’s not confident about who is being sent to the prison in his backyard.
“I made it clear right from the outset that we were not happy with those guys being here, that they should not be in a minimum-security prison,” Ranns said Saturday.
Busch had been sentenced to life in prison with no chance of parole until 2025 after he pleaded guilty in 2010 to second-degree murder. Armitage was serving an 14-year sentence after pleading guilty to aggravated assault and robbery, among other charges. He had been set for statutory release this year.
Inmates at William Head are supposed to be near the end of their sentences, and the possible threat to their pending freedom is what keeps them from escaping, rather than the security system or patrols.
The prison is surrounded on three sides by the Pacific Ocean. In 2018, a four-metre-high double fence on one side of the institution was replaced with a 1.25-metre fence.
“Anybody that wants to escape, can, basically,” Ranns said. “And so, you need the right people here.”
According to the Correctional Service of Canada, the last escape from the prison was in 2014, and prior to that, in 2004.
Ranns said the community is used to the prison and that escapes in the past have “always been fundamentally benign,” lulling them into a false sense of security.
“Well, that’s gone,” he said. “Now we know what can happen.
“And I think a lot of residents are taking measures to defend themselves. And that’s not going to change until we can be confident that we’re not going to have those types of people out here.”
In the wake of the escape, several people, including Esquimalt-Saanich-Sooke MP Randall Garrison, asked why high-risk inmates were being sent to William Head, a minimum-security prison.
Garrison said at the time he had been told that the two escapees should not have been at William Head and were there because of overcrowding and a steady decline in the use of solitary confinement in higher-security prisons resulting in more inmates being transferred to lower-security prisons.
“I think that’s what happened here,” said Garrison, a former criminal justice instructor. “The two people who escaped wouldn’t have normally been at William Head.”
The assessment of prisoners for minimum-, medium- and maximum-security prisons is based on, amongst other things, an intricate scoring system. The score or assessment, however, can be overridden by a “sending” warden. Such approvals for that now must go up several more levels, Ranns said.
Ranns said that while the Correctional Service of Canada investigation into the escapes resulted in some inmates at William Head being reassessed and transferred out, the local warden still does not have the authority to say “no” to such a transfer — called “overrides.”
“They still don’t have the ability to turn anybody away and that does not give me confidence,” said Ranns, adding that some residents purchased firearms after the prison break.
“I don’t have a hell of a lot of confidence in the federal bureaucracy at the best of times,” he said. “So, until that changes until our local people can say ‘no we don’t want this,’ I’m not gonna be happy. I think those residents still have to be concerned and, you know, be aware of what can actually happen.”
Ranns complimented the police for the work that led to the murder charges and praised the district’s administration for addressing problems — “we have far better notification procedures now.”
William Head noticed Armitage and Busch were missing during the 11 p.m. head count on July 7. Security video footage later reviewed showed the men leaving at 6:45 p.m. West Shore RCMP were not alerted until 1:15 a.m. July 8, and the public didn’t find out for several more hours.
Ranns said that’s because a “thorough search” was conducted first. “That’s what caused that big time delay.”
RCMP and local officials will now be alerted immediately when the prison suspects an inmate is missing, he said.
Fire Chief Stephanie Dunlop has an extensive alert mechanism for residents and they will be notified in case of any emergency, Ranns said. Other upgrades for the community have also been made, he said.
Langford Mayor Stew Young, who has also questioned the type of inmates coming to the minimum-security prison, said while news of the charges is welcome, it doesn’t address the community’s questions around security.
Young said there continues to be a lot of anxiety around the prison escape and Payne’s killing. He said he is often asked about it and has no answers to give residents because corrections officials have not made their investigation results public.
“The federal government should have to come out and have a public meeting on what happened,” he said. “Explain what steps they’re going to take to make sure that it’s safe. I mean, I’ve got people telling me to shut this thing down.”