The chief councillor of Sc’ianew First Nation (Beecher Bay) says he wants William Head Institution to close after two inmates who escaped the prison have been charged in relation to the murder of a Metchosin man.
Chief Russ Chipps said that first and foremost, his thoughts are with the family of Martin Payne, who was found dead in his home in July of last year. The homicide came just a few days after James Lee Busch and Zachary Armitage escaped the low-security William Head prison and were found two days later in Esquimalt. Both inmates are charged with one count of first-degree murder each, in relation to Payne’s death.
Busch, who was 42 at the time, and Armitage, who was 30, escaped the prison in the early evening of July 7, 2019. Nearby residents weren’t notified of the escape until nearly 12 hours later. At the time of escape, Busch was serving a sentence for second-degree murder and assault and had previously served time for aggravated sexual assault and escaping custody. Armitage was serving a 13-year, 10-month sentence for robbery, aggravated assault and other offences.
It was revealed in court in September that a Correctional Services Canada analysis deemed Armitage fit for a medium-security institution but an override was recommended and he was moved to the low-security William Head in April 2018.
Chipps said that although William Head is a low-security prison, he thinks offenders such as Armitage who are deemed fit for higher security will continue to be allowed there.
“I believe it should be closed down,” Chipps said. “I’m not looking at the prisoners and saying they’re all bad. Just that the prison can’t deal with the higher risk prisoners and I don’t think there’s going to be anybody stopping them from coming here.”
Instead of using the land as a prison facility, Chipps thinks the federal government should put it into surplus and send it to the treaty association, ultimately returning it to Beecher Bay. He said the social infrastructure there could help by providing housing and care facilities for Sc’ianew First Nation families.
“It’s been used as a quarantine station and a prison,” Chipps said. “I think it’s now time to move it into something more positive, upbeat and useful.”
William Head Institution is surrounded by the ocean on three sides with a four-metre high double perimeter fence. At a September court hearing, it was revealed that Armitage and Busch noted the tide was low the night they made the “spontaneous decision” to escape.
Chipps also recalled a previous prison escape where prisoners swam around the fence to escape, noting they would have ended up swimming to Beecher Bay if they weren’t caught.
These escapes leave Chipps feeling uneasy about the security of the place. He said he doesn’t think it would be equipped to house higher-risk offenders such as Armitage in the future if security stayed the same.
Metchosin Mayor John Ranns said the District has been in communication with William Head Institution since July and that changes have been made over the past 11 months. Notification measures have been upgraded so the Metchosin fire chief Stephanie Dunlop, who has an alert system set up for residents, is notified of suspected escapes from the prison.
Ranns said he has confidence in the warden but said he wants to see rules in place so overrides like Armitage’s can be denied.
The head of Correctional Services Canada, Anne Kelly, extended her sympathies to Payne’s family on Sunday and said they take the situation seriously. She said they implemented “a number of measures” to improve security at the site including the promise to improve Correctional Services Canada’s communications practices and policies to make communities promptly aware of escapes.
According to Chipps, the warden spoke with him about the incident and safety measures for the first time on Sunday and he didn’t feel satisfied that the new precautions would be enough. Chipps questioned why discussions around safety and security weren’t brought up with him immediately after the escape.
“Apart from fencing off the whole building and locking it up, I’m not sure what else could be done but the more they tighten it up it would mean higher-risk offenders,” Chipps said. “We never gave up the land and we never invited people to put a prison there. It’s time for it to be used for a better source now.”
–With files from Nina Grossman