the north face metropolis It’s been 20 years since Burnaby’s Oakalla prison shut for good
Oakalla Prison was in full riot mode.
Inmates had smashed everything they could get their hands on. Fires were lit. Guards responded by hosing down the prisoners while putting out the blazes.
“When the guards came on to put out the fire, I was this little kid with his arms up in the air saying, ‘please don’t spray me.’ They gave me a nod, saying don’t worry, you’re safe as long as you don’t do anything to us. I just stayed out of their way and just kept out of it.”
Harry was 18 when he spent a year in Oakalla Prison for a string of minor crimes, mostly drug offences, break and enters and the like.
He was in the Burnaby prison’s east wing when the riot broke out on New Year’s Eve in 1987. In the chaos, the worst of the worst offenders from the south wing needed to be moved to a segregation unit. But the unit was already full with rioters.
Guards took 13 of the maximum security inmates to what they thought was the next best thing cells underneath the old cow barn built during the institution’s days as a prison farm.
At one point they opened the cells to serve the inmates coffee. The convicts responded by jumping the guards, locking them into the cells and making a break for it.
By then, it was 1988. When word got out of the escape, it was the beginning of the end. It didn’t matter that the 13 inmates were eventually recaptured.
“It was already a doomed prison anyway,” said Harry, who noted land had been purchased at that point for a new prison in Maple Ridge. “This was the nail in the coffin.”
By June 1991, almost 20 years ago, it was closed. Within a year, it was demolished and a townhouse development was underway on the site at Royal Oak Avenue and Oakland Street.
When J. Michael Yates started working at Oakalla in 1981, he was a former university professor and broadcasting executive recovering from a head injury sustained in a car accident. As a result, he’d lost his job, his wife had left and he still needed to pay child support.
Acting on a tip from a friend who already worked there,
he applied at Oakalla and was soon accepted. At 43 years old, he was a rookie again.
Yates worked for several years at Oakalla, Vancouver Pre Trial and New Haven, before returning to writing and teaching. prison system, was published in 1993.
He said in an interview that he didn’t receive much formal on the job training and depended mostly on his wits and common sense in dealing with the inmates. It was, in fact, an inmate who kindly taught him how to use the two way radio.
Pranks and hazing
Then there were the pranks and mild hazing rituals, such as taking new guards down to the no longer used gallows and flicking the switch, causing a loud crash as the trap door opened. He still doesn’t know what was the point of that one.
“There were long periods of boredom punctuated by moments of extreme emergency. It’s not very good for you.”
He witnessed the likes of serial child killer Clifford Olson going out of his way to stir things up.
Yates recalled watching as Olson paused during a visit from a movie producer to call over a young inmate who was sweeping the floors. “For no reason, he spat in his face, just to cause trouble.”
He endured his share of riots and attacks. An inmate swung a homemade weapon at the first guard to walk by his cell, narrowly missing him, and another didn’t even get a chance to try when Yates was tipped off by another prisoner.
Yates confirmed what most in the neighbourhood always knew breakouts were easy and occurred frequently.
There was one year when they saw more than 40 escapes between January and July, he said, noting the cast iron bars were relatively easy to saw through.
But most escapees were the petty criminals, the “nickel and dimers” who were serving two years less a day. Many broke out just to see if they could do it, since they often just got a couple weeks tacked onto their sentences once they were recaptured.
Yates worked the west wing where such inmates were kept and admits he often took naps while posted in the guard tower during the prisoners’ outdoor time in the yard. He wouldn’t try shooting at anyone if he saw them escape since the tower faced Royal Oak and he couldn’t risk hitting a house or passing car.
But it wasn’t like the escape attempts weren’t easily spotted.
There was the telltale blanket brought out to throw over the razor wire on top of the fence at its lowest point. There was the inmate wearing thick coats in the middle of summer, ostensibly to protect them from the razor wire. And if that wasn’t enough, there was the sound of 200 fellow inmates cheering them on as they scaled the fence.