Note: This story makes mention of some difficult subjects, such as sexual assault and murder.
Oakalla Prison was a presence in British Columbia from 1912 to 1991. In its 79 years it gained a reputation for being one of the most notorious correctional facilities in all of Canada. The long, strange and often troubling history of the infamous gaol is coloured by stories of executions, escapes and peculiar activity.
The Oakalla grounds occupied nearly 200 acres of land above Deer Lake in Burnaby, B.C.. Constructed between 1912 and 1914, the jail initially served as a prison farm, where inmates would serve their sentences by working. Prisoners tended to livestock, vegetable gardens and learned trades. Such facilities were popular in their time before being phased out by the model of rehabilitation that we see today.
Originally intended to house only a few hundred inmates, the prisoner population would eventually swell to over 1,000 men and women. The area around the centre saw a rise in inhabitants, as well. As the whole of the Lower Mainland grew and developed, so did the community close to Deer Lake. What was once a rather private and open expanse of land became increasingly hemmed in as subdivisions, businesses and other trappings of society inched their way closer to the jail grounds--something that became a frequent issue of concern for nearby residents.
While Oakalla housed some relatively minor criminals in its run, it also served as a facility for the worst offenders, guilty of the most serious charges. Additionally, it was a remand centre, holding individuals awaiting trials or sentencing and was even responsible for the confinement of Clifford Olson. Dubbed by the media as “The Beast of British Columbia”, Olson was a serial killer responsible for the deaths of numerous children and young adults in the 1980s.
The concern over the nature of some of the inmates and its proximity to the Burnaby community was only compounded by the prison’s staggering number of escapes. Over its eight decades, Oakalla would see almost 900 prisoner breakouts. The most scandalous events took place over December 1987 and January 1988. The former saw three inmates escape through a hole in a prison wall, going on to catch the SkyTrain at a nearby station, all while dressed in their correctional uniforms. While the prison’s decision to not alert the public was met with passionate criticism, events only a few weeks later would make this episode seem small in comparison.
Just after midnight on New Year’s Day 1988, thirteen prisoners would escape from Oakalla. The group of inmates were being held in a segregation unit underneath an old cow barn and were being overseen by two relatively novice guards. In an almost cinematic sequence, a set of offenders overcame the guards, stole their keys and continued to release fellow inmates. Two would seize the guards’ uniforms and don them as their own, while the others would flee in their prison-issued outfits. Before long they were out in the community, with one group stealing a vehicle from a couple out celebrating the New Year. This event would, in part, lead to the facility’s closure in 1991.
It’s said that to a certain extent, the escapes were a result of Oakalla’s notoriously poor conditions. Esteemed Vancouver journalist, Jack Webster, described it as a “disgusting underground dungeon”, where segregation cells were furnished with only a mattress and a bucket for a toilet. Of course, by nature, a prison is a hardened place, but for British Columbia’s largest correctional centre, there seemed to be an excess of disturbing events.
Over the years, the prison has been tied to incidents of sexual assault, with one former Oakalla corrections officer being convicted of sexually abusing inmates throughout his tenure. In a separate horrifying episode, while on a “scared straight” tour, a teenage boy was sexually assaulted by a group of prisoners. Such programs were intended to expose young people to the realities of incarceration, often by having them visit correctional facilities and interact with offenders who would then “scare” them off of a wayward path.
While an unrelated Scared Straight program operates presently in the Lower Mainland, taking teens on tours of Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, the Oakalla “project” was not systematic, or (clearly) safe. It’s said that the jail’s hosting of youth between 1978 and 1981 was largely disorganized or interpretive, with the attending guard deciding on the nature of the visit.
Beyond the criminal events which took place at Oakalla, it was also designated as the site for all executions in British Columbia. In total, the prison would see 44 executions take place on its grounds. The gallows which were originally outside would eventually be moved indoors and built over an abandoned elevator shaft.
Canada would abolish the death penalty in 1976, but the prison would see the province’s last execution in 1959. Leo Mantha, a former Navy man turned tugboat operator, would kill his lover, Aaron Jenkins, stabbing him while he slept at the Esquimalt Naval base. As the story goes, Jenkins had ended his relationship with Mantha, informing him that he planned to marry his girlfriend. The murder, a near textbook crime of passion, would find Mantha executed by hanging at Oakalla. He was 30 years old.
Still, for all of its darker history, the prison was also home to a seemingly well-intended program--even if it was somewhat strange. Throughout the 1950s and 60s, the gaol attempted to rehabilitate inmates and better their chances for societal reintegration by performing cosmetic surgeries. Dr. Edward Lewison, a Vancouver-based facial reconstruction plastic surgeon put hundreds of prisoners under the knife in a bid to improve their self-image and confidence.
Most of the surgeries involved repairing broken noses, but other popular procedures included fixing scars, skin conditions or attending to tattoos. Reportedly, the program was quite popular, with many inmates lining up to correct perceived physical flaws. Apparently Dr. Lewison believed that such things were related to criminality and volunteered his time at Oakalla to help those incarcerated. Whether that is true or not, the program--while not well-documented and not taken very seriously in modern times--did report some successes.
Oakalla would close in 1991. Not long after, the buildings would be demolished and residential housing would take its place. One such neighbourhood is The Oaklands, whose most expensive townhouses now sell for well over 1 million dollars. A playground exists on the site and events such as concerts and live shows are held on the grounds of nearby Deer Lake Park. The prison, the inmates, the victims of the crimes which sent them there are memories.
In a talk by Earl Andersen, former Oakalla guard and author of the book Hard Place to Do Time: The Story of Oakalla Prison, he likens the history of the infamous gaol to the history of corrections in the country, in general. And it is true--as with any place or group or event, we can look back and see a mirror held up to the society of the time, to the norms, the notions, the values. And Oakalla is no different.