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It's been 20 years since Burnaby's Oakalla prison shut for good

Michael Yates, a former guard at Oakalla prison, stands on a set of original stairs that have been preserved at the site, which is now a housing development. He
Michael Yates, a former guard at Oakalla prison, stands on a set of original stairs that have been preserved at the site, which is now a housing development. He's written a book about his experiences at the prison.
— image credit: MARIO BARTEL/NEWSLEADER

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.

“I was luckily in the first cell closest to the door,” said “Harry,” who asked that his real name not be used.

“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.

He was a writer who had temporarily lost the ability to write. 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. Line Screw, a memoir of his time working in the B.C. 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.

Easy escapes

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.

Generally, it was left to Burnaby RCMP and their dog squads to track down the inmates as they scrambled towards Deer Lake. The especially-prepared escapee would carry packets of pepper which they’d empty behind them to throw the dogs off their scent, often causing the canines to roll down the hill as a result.

“We called it the West Gate B Olympics.”

•••••

Burnaby historian and filmmaker Ron Jack is so fascinated by the Oakalla story that he’s been working on a three-part documentary series.

Between 1912 and 1991, about 300,000 men, women and children spent time behind its walls, he said, explaining the children belonged to the Doukhobor protesters imprisoned there for a time in the 1950s.

“That’s an incredibly big piece of Burnaby history ... a rich gold mine of stories.”

Jack’s impression from his interviews with 30-plus former Oakalla staff is that there was more animosity between guards and administration over how the place was run than between guards and inmates.

He’s now convinced that it had to close when it did simply because the aging facility was wearing out and expensive upgrades simply weren’t feasible.

But while most similar institutions wind down over a number of years, and fade from the public consciousness before finally closing, Oakalla was practically a case of turning off the lights and tearing it down.

“For such a massive institution to have such a dominant position in local life and then just disappear in a wink. That creates sort of an aura to it, a mystery.”

•••••

Michael Yates still recalls his years at Oakalla fondly, calling it the “best place I ever worked in corrections. It was funnier, it was more entertaining.” The work and related criminology studies helped him regain the confidence to return to writing.

And there was the view.

Referring to Deer Lake and the North Shore mountains, he said, “It’s absolutely gorgeous ... It’s a Garden of Eden.”

As for Harry, he said his time at Oakalla helped set him on the straight and narrow.

Now 42, he’s kept out of trouble for about 18 years and intends to keep it that way.

wchow@burnabynewsleader.com

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