On the one-year anniversary of a prison break connected to the killing of a nearby resident, a corrections officer at William Head prison says the community, prisoners and staff at the minimum-security facility won’t be safe until oversight of incoming inmates is strengthened.
Too often after an escape or other incident, “it’s like they close the barn doors” for a while, but soon the status quo returns, said the officer, who requested anonymity to protect his job.
“As long as they’ve learned something and they continue to take the same precautions, then it’s a good thing,” the officer said.
A Correctional Service of Canada investigation released last month following the escape of James Lee Busch, then 42, and Zachary Armitage, 30, has led to several security changes, including strengthening the assessment process and decision-making approval needed for a prisoner to be sent to a minimum-security prison.
A year ago today, at 6:45 p.m., Busch and Armitage walked past a defunct guard tower at the minimum-security prison, which is rimmed by the Pacific Ocean on three sides, and around a single unguarded eight-foot fence, leaving the prison grounds. They were recaptured on July 9 on a waterfront walkway in Esquimalt, after an off-duty RCMP officer walking his dog recognized them.
Three days later, the body of Martin Payne, 60, who lived alone eight kilometres from the jail, was discovered in his home. Busch and Armitage have each been charged with first-degree murder in the death of Payne, who died July 8, according to family.
Both Busch and Armitage were violent criminals — Busch had been convicted of murder and rape, while Armitage beat a man so badly that he left him a quadriplegic — who had recently been sent to William Head from medium-security Mission Institution. Busch was up for full parole in 2025 and Armitage was to be released on parole in September 2019.
Within days of the escape, word surfaced that Busch and Armitage, who had five prison escapes on record, were only at the minimum-security prison because of an override — when a prisoner’s security-risk-assessment score is reassessed by a parole officer, management or assistant warden, in this case for a facility with lower security.
At the time of the escape, Esquimalt-Saanich-Sooke NDP MP Randall Garrison, a former criminal justice instructor, expressed concern about the overrides, saying they might be happening as a result of overcrowding in higher-security prisons because of the reduction and closure of solitary confinement or segregated units since 2011.
As part of an investigation into the escape, the Correctional Service of Canada sent nine prisoners from William Head back to medium-security prisons, including Busch and Armitage.
The William Head corrections worker says staff have been seeing “more and more medium-security-type behaviours” in minimum-security jails.
“Incidents are up — we’re doing more and more critical interventions with guys. I’ve definitely noticed the uptick of medium-security types of behaviours in the last couple of years, for sure.”
Typically, that behaviour manifests more as intimidation and attitude than physical assaults, he said.
With respect to overrides, the Correctional Service of Canada said about the same number of prisoners were sent up a level of security as were sent down last year.
To assess risk, the correctional service uses two automated tools, the Custody Ratings Scale, when inmates are first admitted, and a Security Reclassification Scale once they are in prison. Then an individual — a parole officer, for instance — takes that numerical rating and adjusts it to take into account the inmate’s escape risk, risk to the public should they escape and “institutional adjustment” or behaviour in prison.
Busch scored as medium in two categories and high in the area of public risk, said the correctional officer. Still, an override was applied and he was sent to a minimum-security institution.
“Going from medium to minimum on an institutional adjustment or an escape risk, it’s not that uncommon,” said the William Head corrections officer. “But going from a risk to public safety — from high to minimum — I don’t think I’ve ever seen it.”
The corrections worker said complaints were made about Busch about a week to 10 days prior to his escape, and there was a recommendation to transfer him back to a medium-security prison, but Busch’s parole officer was in support of him staying at William Head.
“We can write that we think a guy is unsuitable for minimum security, but unless we have the backing of the parole officers, those complaints aren’t gonna go anywhere,” said the corrections officer.
“The parole officers are seen as the people that know them the best and have the most insight into their behaviour and their crime and their personalities.”
“They don’t see them like we see them.”
In November 2019, Judge Roger Cutler pointed to a Correctional Service report that revealed Armitage was assessed in February 2018 as a moderate risk to escape and best suited for a medium-security institution, “but one week later,” that recommendation was overridden and he was assessed as a low risk to escape and determined to be suitable for minimum security. Armitage was placed at William Head in April 2018, and was weeks from a statutory work-release program when he escaped. “He was on his way out the door,” said the William Head correctional worker, who was puzzled by Armitage’s escape. “By all accounts, he was doing well.”
Derek Chin, the Pacific regional president for the Union of Canadian Correctional Officers, said violent offenders have to do a lot of work to get into a minimum-security facility, and if it’s not the right fit, it’s a threat to staff and other prisoners.
Inside William Head, where inmates are preparing for life and work after release, correctional officers don’t carry weapons or handcuffs, said Chin, whose union represents more than 7,300 members working in federal institutions across Canada.
Chin said he has been advised by union members of concerns about overrides at William Head. He said staff aren’t equipped to handle behaviours more typical of medium-security institutions, and there is general frustration in all nine correctional facilities in his region because of a belief staff complaints about inmates are not taken seriously by management.
The escape and subsequent death of Payne deeply affected many correctional workers, said the William Head staff member, noting three have not been back to work since the day of the escape.
“We’re pretty busted up about this stuff, too — not taking anything away from the victim — but we feel it, too,” said the correctional worker. “Even if we weren’t there that day, you know, collectively, it happened on our watch, so it hurts, for sure.” Currently there are about 160 prisoners at the jail and 45 correctional staff, not including management, program facilitators and other staff.
Metchosin Mayor John Ranns said until the local warden at William Head can refuse prisoners deemed unsuitable for a minimum-risk setting, he can’t reassure residents they are safe from violent offenders who escape.
The corrections worker agrees.
“The biggest thing is the ability of the sending warden to be able to drop a guy’s safety risk from maximum to medium or from maximum to minimum with the stroke of a pen,” said the worker. “That is ridiculous.
“The receiving warden should be able to say: ‘We don’t want that guy.’ ”