MP asks: Why are high-risk inmates at minimum-security William Head prison?

The MP for Metchosin is asking why high-risk inmates are being sent to William Head minimum-security prison.

Two of those high-risk inmates, James Busch, 42, and Zachary Armitage, 30, escaped from William Head on July 7. They were recaptured on July 9 in Esquimalt by an off-duty RCMP officer.

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Busch is serving a life sentence with no chance of parole until 2025 for second-degree murder, while Armitage is serving an 18-year sentence for robbery and an aggravated assault that left his victim a quadriplegic.

The same week the men escaped, police found the body of Martin Payne in Metchosin, a victim of foul play.

Payne was found dead in his home on Brookview Drive on July 12, three days after his vehicle was found in Oak Bay. Payne’s home is about eight kilometres from William Head prison.

West Shore RCMP have said “persons of interest” have been identified in connection with Payne’s death, but no links between his killing and the escaped men has been announced.

Payne would have turned 61 on Tuesday. A celebration was held in his memory.

Esquimalt-Saanich-Sooke MP Randall Garrison said he’s been told that the two escapees should not have been at William Head.

Garrison said he has been told that Busch and Armitage were at William Head because of overcrowding and a steady decline in the use of solitary confinement in higher-security prisons. That has resulted 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.”

People who have committed serious violent offences generally begin their sentences in maximum security. They are regularly re-assessed and gradually prepared for potential supervised release near the end of their sentences by moving down through security-level institutions, “as long as that can be done safely,” according to the office of Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale.

Garrison has written to federal corrections investigator Ivan Zinger, saying that his constituents have increased concerns about security at the institution.

“The concern being expressed to me is that higher risk inmates are now routinely being assigned to minimum-security institutions like William Head and that the result is higher levels of disciplinary problems in and escapes from those institutions,” Garrison wrote.

“There is a concern that this practice is a direct result of a cascade resulting from the closure of segregation units at higher security institutions.

“If this is indeed the case, having improperly classified inmates at William Head will inevitably affect its success at rehabilitation and also negatively impact its neighbours.”

Since 2011, the Correctional Service of Canada has reduced by more than half the number of inmates in administrative segregation.

Goodale’s bill to abolish administrative segregation and instead place inmates at risk of harming themselves or others in what’s called Structured Intervention Units was passed into law on June 21. It is expected to come into force in November.

Garrison said he supports reducing or eliminating solitary confinement, but he said if the result is more violent offenders coming to minimum-security prisons, he wants to know the federal corrections watchdog is including that in his investigation.

“This seems to be a pattern that’s emerging in not just William Head, but other minimum-security institutions,” Garrison said.

“That results in those higher-risk people ending up in places like William Head,” he said. “That’s a problem for everybody.”

Correctional Service of Canada investigators were at William Head this week.

Goodale’s office said while a review is not yet complete, “the minister is confident that [the Corrections Service of Canada] is taking appropriate steps to ensure the security of William Head based on what is known at this point.

“In addition, [the Corrections Service of Canada] is undertaking a policy review of the requirements for offenders being considered for a transfer to minimum security.”

Ensuring the safety and security of institutions, staff, inmates and the public is the service’s priority, said the minister’s office, and every escape is investigated to determine whether changes need to be made.

About 15,000 people are incarcerated in Canada, and in the past five years there were fewer than 20 escapes per year, with 15 in 2017-2018 and 10 in 2018-2019.

William Head is surrounded on three sides by the Pacific Ocean and on one side there is an eight-foot fence.

Inmates at William Head are supposed to be near the end of their sentences, and a possible threat to their pending freedom, rather than the security system or patrols, keeps them from escaping, Garrison said.

“It’s not the height of the fences that actually keeps people in,” he said.

Busch was sentenced to life in prison with no chance of parole until 2025 after he pleaded guilty in 2010 to second-degree murder. He admitted to strangling Saskatoon neighbour Sandra Marie Ramsay, 41, over a $20 debt. A witness told the court that he laughed as he strangled Ramsey, who weighed about 80 pounds. Busch and another person stuffed Ramsay’s body into a suitcase and dragged it to a trash bin.

Busch had already served seven years in prison for the 2003 rape of a seven-year-old female relative in Saskatoon, reported the Saskatoon Star Phoenix.

He served his full sentence, taking no treatment programs, a Queen’s Bench courtroom heard, and was considered a high risk to reoffend when he was released. He was placed under a peace bond, but killed Ramsay less than three months later.

Armitage was 19 in 2009 when he robbed Shaun Dupuis, and beat him on the head with a blunt object. In 2011, Armitage pleaded guilty to aggravated assault and robbery and other charges.

He was sentenced in a Sudbury, Ont., court to 18 years in prison for the attack on Dupuis and for another violent robbery the same month in which he beat one of his victims unconscious.

Dupuis was left a quadriplegic and unable to speak. He died of an infection related to his injuries in 2013.

At William Head, the escape of Busch and Armitage was detected during head count at 11 p.m. on July 7. Security video footage showed the men leaving at 6:45 p.m.

The Correctional Service of Canada said in an email that activities within a minimum-security facility are monitored through “dynamic security practices” including staff supervision, routine security patrols and formal counts.

William Head’s closed-circuit cameras but they are not regularly monitored, and are for “evidentiary purposes.”

Busch and Armitage are scheduled to appear in court in the West Shore on Aug. 29.

Both offenders are in custody, but not in a minimum-security facility.

ceharnett@timescolonist.com

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