Warden defends minimum security for killers despite recent escape
Published Wednesday, April 19, 2017 6:05PM PDT
Days after a man convicted of killing a teenager walked away from a Fraser Valley prison, the warden of the minimum security facility is defending the system.
Robert Dezwaan, who is serving a life sentence for the 2001 murder of 16-year-old Cherish Oppenheim in Merritt, escaped from Mission Institution last Friday by simply walking off the grounds.
The killer was tracked down the next day, but his escape raised questions about a system that puts violent offenders in a facility without even a fence to stop them from leaving.
On Wednesday, warden Barb Van Vugt acknowledged there’s nothing preventing inmates from taking off from the prison.
"There's a defined perimeter, there's an out-of-bounds zone, but there's no physical security," Van Vugt told CTV Vancouver's Shannon Paterson.
"They can walk away."
But the warden said only inmates who are nearing the end of their sentences, and who are deemed a low risk to public safety, are transferred to the Mission facility.
"We believe a gradual release into society is safest and best for everyone," Van Vugt said.
"We rely on psychology reports to assess risk in terms of risk for future violence. We assess how they conducted themselves institutionally, and what kind of program they completed, and only then would we assess them as a low risk to public safety."
But in Dezwaan's case, parole board documents from less than a year ago showed he was denied day parole and rated a high to moderate-high risk for both violent and sexual recidivism.
Shelley Oppenheim Lacerte, the mother of his victim, learned of his brief escape through the media and told CTV she was bothered by where he was being held.
"If he's a high risk, I don't believe he's at a place where he should be in minimum security," she said in an exclusive interview Tuesday.
"He should be behind bars."
And the regional president of the Union of Canadian Correctional Officers said there's little that officers can do to prevent escapes.
"With (Mission Institution) being a big grid, anyone could really walk," Derek Chin said.
He said correctional officers have no input on security classification, and that he was "absolutely" concerned that there are people like Dezwaan serving their sentences in minimum security.
"It's really up to their correctional plans and their inmate behaviour, so we don't really have a say in it, it goes up to upper management's level and they decide that," Chin said.
He called the staffing level "very minimal," and described the facility as being similar to a college dormitory.
"They walk free, pretty much," he said.
Inmate privacy laws prevent the warden from saying whether Dezwaan was sent back to her institution – which also has a medium security unit on site – or if he was transferred elsewhere, but she did say that anyone who escapes is subject to outside charges.
The charges could keep Dezwaan from enjoying the privilege of prison without fences.
With a report from CTV Vancouver's Shannon Paterson