Chapter 6: Minimum Security and Ferndale Institution

In Canada, we have some models and concepts that I know are the best in the world in promoting public safety. Minimum security, for instance, is critical to the whole corrections process. When we ask people what it is we should be doing, and ways we should manage offenders, inevitably they describe things we can do at minimum-security facilities. I don't know if the number-one issue is reducing the cost to the taxpayer for incarceration, but it certainly comes up. Taxpayers do not want to spend a large chunk of their tax dollars on housing offenders.

The second important issue is making offenders take responsibility for themselves. It is clear to us in the corrections system that minimum security is the only place we can do that with any degree of success. We have the capacity there for people to do their own cooking and to look after themselves, rather than having us do a very expensive baby-sitting job.

Third, we can get the best of programming in minimum security. Because of the ambience and the physical structure we are able to deliver programs in a much more efficient and timely way than in most prisons. Work is a high priority for people. Minimum security affords us the opportunity to keep most of our offenders employed similarly to someone in the community — if not totally, at least we can start approximating what we expect of a person working. We can now expand that so that we can provide a variety of work, meeting a wide range of needs: diverse work opportunities, not just one industry. Historically, it has been proven that work is an absolutely crucial part of a good corrections program. Although work programs exist in medium-security and even maximum-security institutions, they cannot function as effectively as in minimum-security facilities.

Another major feature is community service. We can do much local work for our communities. My guess is that across Canada, in our minimum-security institutions, we provide literally millions of dollars of community work and community service to the communities in which we are located. It is not widely recognized. We don't get a large amount of publicity, but every once in a while, a feature article comes out describing activities that we've been involved in and some of the excellent work that has gone into our various communities.

At Ferndale Institution a major part of our work has been serving the community. The most recent example is the construction of all the entry signs for the municipality of Mission. They are absolutely beautiful pieces of work, using heavy timbers, at a cost that the municipality could not afford on its own. It's a good example of the tremendous number of community-service work opportunities that go on. They are also a very important part of the corrections agenda.

The appearance of comfort

Despite the fact that these are all what people want in a good corrections system, when you actually deliver them you run into a lot of problems. The nature of how they get communicated, how we deal with them through the media, and how we deal with them politically have a lot do with it.

The major problems that we face include the appearance of comfort and what I would call the politics of escape. Inevitably, you are going to get criticism, especially in a place like Ferndale or other new facilities. People say they are far too attractive, considering the people we are accommodating. Some say it's an easy ride. Readers' Digest came out with a feature article on Ferndale, asking "Do our prisons have to be country clubs?" in the headline. The article focussed on the facts that the place was attractive, well-maintained and comfortable, and that it reflected a standard that many people in our society could not afford on their own. It was misleading, because the only difference between something being derelict and something being attractive is work. And the only reason that our facilities are as attractive as they are is because we have a workforce that can produce and create an attractive place.

As a Warden, I always felt that it was part of my job to protect the assets of the country. They are owned by the people, and I thought it would be imprudent not to manage the facility with great care and to make sure that it was attractive and well-maintained. The criticism has always puzzled me. On the one hand, if we left it derelict I am sure there would be considerable concern and complaints from the public. On the other hand, the minute you spend time to make it attractive, to landscape it or make sure that buildings are well-maintained, painted and looked after, then you run into the opposite complaint.

I have to say that criticism does not come from the local people around the institutions. We try to keep in contact with them and meet with them as often as we can. In fact, their concerns are just the opposite: when they see a construction project on the site that they believe may detract from the place, they will call and show some concern. If I lived next door to one of these places, I would rather it look like a golf course than a jungle, and that's what they tell us. We get good support from our neighbours about the development of a well-cared-for facility.

The golf course that we built at Ferndale has become a focal point for criticism, if people need a target. It became a major feature for those who wanted to highlight the issue about attractiveness and comfort. At Ferndale, we do not have gymnasiums, so we chose to build a golf course because it was inexpensive. We wanted to create an activity that would be more social and that would reflect what goes on in the community. Over the years, we have created work opportunities that resulted in a number of men getting careers in golf-course maintenance and working in the landscape business. That was never intended as a clear plan, but it has turned out that way.

The thing I first introduced when I came to Ferndale was free access to the golf course for certain groups. That's the program we have with senior citizens, who currently have access to the facility three times a week. That will be expanded as a project nears completion — a little nine-hole, par 3. We may expand the hours, but even now it gets incredible use. It has become a major part of the life of the seniors' community in Abbotsford and Mission.

It has had a number of good side effects. We don't charge them anything, but we do have volunteer donations that we make available to charities. In the past year, we have been able to support a number of charities from donations to the golf course.

Another secondary benefit concerns seniors who fear crime and the criminal justice system. Using the golf course gives them an opportunity to be up front and centre in seeing what really happens and who these inmates are. It gives them better knowledge of the criminal justice system than had not been exposed in this kind of way. It is interesting to see their change in attitude, once they start to know some of our offenders and become a little more aware of what we do, the expectations we place on people and the way we manage the facility. We never get any criticism from this group of folks. They are a great support group, as a matter of fact, and quite frankly, if the golf course was ever shut down, I wouldn't want to be the one dealing with them.

I wouldn't recommend that we should do this in every minimum-security facility. It happened to be appropriate in our context because we are in the horticultural business to a great degree. It was easy for us because of the very low cost of doing this kind of work. We have the equipment, and we grow the plants and shrubs that are necessary to make the place attractive. So the cost to us is minimal and the benefits are great.

Despite the criticism, I've made a point of not weaselling out. The easiest thing would be to back down and plough it under and turn it into a cabbage patch, I suppose. But I just don't think that's appropriate. As long as I have anything to say in the matter, it will remain an important part of who we are and of the community. We have support from the local golf and country clubs; they have no problem with us being there. If anything, they appreciate that we have introduced a number of people to golf, for as they get better, they will want to play at one of the bigger courses.

The other major criticism came when we began exploring the possibility of opening up a driving range. There was support from the people in Mission, but not a lot of support from one of the driving-range operators in Abbotsford. He was concerned that it might cut into his business, and he launched a pretty aggressive campaign to stop any initiative. I don't know whether we would have actually gone ahead with the project eventually, but we did do a cost-benefit study to see if it was feasible. I thought we might be able to provide the driving range as a service to the community, and many local people were urging me at least to consider it. As a member of the Rotary Club, I talked to a number of business people who would take advantage of such a facility. A chunk of land that we had donated to the District of Mission a number of years ago for sports-related activities, has never been developed. It is right behind the current municipal buildings, a very good location, but politics at present are such that it would not be appropriate even to consider it.

We have to take a few adventurous steps. My role as a Warden is to see what we can do in terms of public service, what is going to be accepted, and what is not. It all relates back to the politics of comfort. I noticed one political comment that inmates should not be playing golf: they should be doing cognitive skills programs. But it's not an either-or thing. They are doing cognitive skills programs. In fact, I have been one of the major proponents of that kind of programming over the years. It's just that those programs don't work unless inmates have had the opportunity to practice them in real-life situations.

We also have to create an opportunity for people to live the semblance of a normal life. All the programming in the world won't do any good. You can have them sit in classes on alcohol treatment for 12 hours a day, but to little effect because as human beings, that is not how we learn. We learn by practice. When we do programs, we try to link them to everything else that we do, from community service to work; we don't separate out one activity as more valuable than the next. We try to make sure that we do all of the things that are necessary to reconstruct and approximate normal life.

Appearances, however, are a real issue. We have to be bold and take a stand. We must say "No — we're not going to succumb to that kind of criticism because it's inappropriate and it undermines what we should be doing about reforming individuals."

The politics of escape

The other major issue that confronts us is escape. An escape inevitably means an inquiry, which means in turn that someone has to find something that went wrong. You find something that went wrong, and there are usually many little procedural changes that tend to work against doing what we should be doing. It has always been a question of what is tolerable in allowing for an escape. The cost of perfection is sometimes just too high. You can go down to zero escapes, and we are doing it successfully in our medium- and maximum-security facilities. But you sacrifice a tremendous amount in terms of reform and the large number of offenders that we can reach and change. We would miss that opportunity if we seek perfection.

We can probably do better than we have done in the past. We are doing quite well right now. When I came to Ferndale five years ago, there were something in the neighbourhood of 25 escapes a year, and that was tolerated. With the Timothy Cronin and Michael Roberts incident in 1994, we had a significant inquiry and took a hard look at what we could do to improve. We looked at some of our policies and procedures, and how we handled certain situations. We looked at the research, with targets and profiles of the kind of offender who escapes. There is good research: we know that the majority of escapees are young guys, often imprisoned for drug-related incidents such as drug debts or drug abuse that they can't handle. Frequently, they are young inmates serving short sentences, and they are usually caught within hours of escaping. With some fairly basic changes, we got the escape rate down to only two or three a year. In fact, there were a couple of years running when we had zero escapes, but I don't think you will ever get a perfect score, regardless of what you do.

High-profile escapes are the ones where an inmate gets out and commits a serious crime. They happen frequently enough to be a concern, but you don't shut everything down because of that. Of course, it's easy to say that we don't know what we are doing — we are allowing these guys to walk out helter-skelter. In truth, that is not the case. The majority of inmates don't run away. The huge majority — 99.9 per cent — do not. When somebody does take off, you always step back and worry if he is going to be the person who commits the crime. Our experience at Ferndale is probably a little different from Elbow Lake. The majority of the offenders whom we've had escape have not had any subsequent charges for further criminal offences. Currently, two men who left are suspects in a murder, but no charges have been laid and as time goes on, it looks less and less likely that there will be.

If a person escapes from Ferndale, we would not take him back. There would be an involuntary transfer to a medium-security institution immediately. Whether they ever got back to a minimum-security facility would depend on a number of circumstances, but generally speaking they would not. Once they have betrayed that kind of trust, we take a pretty hard look. We've had a number of incidents where people have turned themselves back in, and even in those cases we do not keep them. We will transfer them. It's amazing how many times our own staff catch them. They see them downtown. They get information from other inmates. We're able to find them. Our success rate in recapture is about 100 per cent. There are not too many people out there whom we haven't recaptured, and usually it's within a very short time from when they leave.

There is strong pressure from the other inmates not to escape, because they understand the politics of escape. Escaping can create all kinds of public concern, and could cut them off from access to the good programs and activities available. It's an annoyance to the inmate population of minimum-security institutions — not a value that would be shared at some of our other levels of security. But certainly in minimum, there would be some hot drubbing from other inmates when people escape. It's not appreciated.

New value systems

Because we have slowly introduced value systems within the institution that are different from what offenders have been accustomed to, the con code doesn't hold anymore. It's gone. It will hold in some places, but once inmates get to a minimum-security institution and see the potential for freedom and for getting back into the community and a real life, in their own self-interest, they come over more and more. The interest in maintaining the criminal profile diminishes — that's what we hoped for, and it seems to be happening. We've been monitoring our releases out of minimum-security facilities, and our best guess is that 90 per cent of people who come out — and I am being conservative here — actually complete their sentences without any further criminal behaviour. At least they have not been charged with criminal behaviour while out on parole or on any form of conditional release, so we know it works very effectively.

If you looked at some of these people, you would wonder whether we would have any success with them at all. It really seems that we do. Of all the federal inmates in the Pacific Region, we know that about 40 per cent will reoffend. Some years, it has been 60 per cent. At Ferndale, I would say that only about 10 per cent will reoffend, and we're dealing with tough cases. Half of those people are lifers. The criminal profile of our institution is not much different than what you would find in a medium-security institution in terms of the nature and type of crime the inmates have been involved in. The only difference is their attitude, and their willingness to do something about it. Petty thefts almost always get corrected by peer pressure. They seek to get into programs, and to develop a life, some self-confidence, relationships and community support.

These all are changes that need to happen if an offender is going to be released successfully. Somebody told me recently that at least a quarter of a million people across Canada have completed federal sentences, are in the community now and have never reoffended. There is a large group of people out there who seem to survive.

On the other hand, there are victims out there who have been horribly treated. There's no doubt about it: I don't think we treat victims very well. You have to do some follow-up. You see victims ten years later who are still upset. They're still mad, and I can understand why they're angry. We haven't prepared them for what will happen — that a person can be in jail for ten years and be changed profoundly. There is no point in having them locked up. The taxpayer is paying the bill for that. You need to prepare the victims so they understand that we're not letting some offender get away with murder. We get criticism through bad public relations that the system doesn't work, but that is the nature of our work. I think it's working quite well.

Experiences at Ferndale Institution

The key is to create good opportunities and to manage the opportunities well. We operate programs through CORCAN, a company set up to deal with commercial projects. It has lost money in some industrial projects, but as long as I have been at Ferndale, it has been successful. It pays inmates about $2 a day and provides employment and training. We have been involved in a very successful horticultural program, mainly shrubs and ground cover, and now we are getting into perennials. It's a terrific program, thanks to the unique staff at Ferndale. What we have at Ferndale is a model of corrections. It is cost-effective, cheap and shows how we can work with people.

I have very experienced staff. All corrections officers are at the CO-2 level, and their knowledge and experience are ten times better than all the hardware in the world. Often, only three or four officers are on shift at any one time. We have cameras and other security technology, but it's just as important to know the inmates and know what the research says about who is dangerous and who isn't, and who is going to escape and who isn't. Two men escaped the day I was appointed to Ferndale. When I started my job, I learned of the escape of Cronin and Roberts in May 1994, and the community was very angry for obvious reasons. The effects of that are severe for everybody; it sets everything back. The other side of it, I've always believed, is to take those situations and use them to your advantage by looking for constructive alternatives.

We use Bob Hare, an expert in psychopathy who has done 30 years of research, to help us determine who you can trust and who you can't. There are people with no conscience. You have to treat them differently. No program in the world addresses them; it's manage and control only. The majority are not killers. They are manipulators, con men and fraud artists. They represent about 20 per cent of our prison population; it would probably increase a bit in a medium-security institution, and when you get up to a maximum-security institution like Kent, it's about 30 to 40 per cent.

Ferndale's inmate population is now 140, soon to rise to 170. The housing units are fabulous: the best thing that ever happened. They were cheap to construct, because the inmates built them themselves, and inexpensive to maintain, because the inmates have to care for the units themselves. They do their own cooking, laundry and cleaning, and they grow their own gardens. We have eight-man units with no double bunking, although some of the housing units have shared accommodation with two men to a room.

Homosexuality does not seem to be a problem under this model. It goes on, but it's not much tolerated any more. If someone is observed being aggressive, the inmates tell us right away. That's what happens when you break things up into small little groups. You don't have that big old prison mentality, with a con code. It's completely different here.

Contraband is not a major issue because we work with a different system than in most places. We use intensive supervision. We have a check list of behaviours to watch for. We monitor sleep patterns and who people associate with. If we are suspicious, we tell an inmate that he is being monitored every step he takes and every breath he takes. He'll spill the beans right there, 90 per cent of the time. It's uncomfortable for them to be closely watched. We tell them that we will work with them if they have any problems, and they usually confess. If they don't, they're out of Ferndale.

One of the things that allowed me to accomplish all this was public exposure and the involvement of many communities and organizations to find how we could do things better. We had broad access to the community, but it took a while. Now, I have terrific support from the local community. We have worked very closely with the community in a number of projects worth hundreds of thousands of dollars. I changed the logo of the institution to Partners in Corrections, and had T-shirts and golf shirts made so that we can give them away in the community. We've had a huge number of partnerships over the last four years.

I received a note just the other day from the Mayor of Mission, Randy Hawes. We became pretty close friends. The note said: "There are really no words to express my sorrow about your illness. I'm thinking back when you first took over at Ferndale and you and I had a pretty rocky start. You should know though that since then I have developed an immense respect for you, not only for your work as Warden but for you as a man. You have a profound impact on how I view corrections, and that, Ron, is a tribute to you as a person."