Thursday, July 2, 2009

Documenting memories of Oakalla prison 1912-1991

It is the common verdict that all prisons and jails are dangerous, frightening places and most of our communities simply will not consider hosting one. Yet there have been fewer than a half dozen prisons in all of Canadian history which truly deserve to be labeled "infamous". American penal history has its Alcatraz, its Leavenworth, Sing Sing, Folsom, San Quentin and many more. In Canada the most feared prison was the "super-maximum" called Millhaven, built outside of Kingston, Ontario. Here on the Pacific Coast no prison was more "infamous" than Oakalla, in Burnaby.

The statistics for Oakalla hint at the horror and decades of unrelenting pain. There were 44 official executions (hangings) ... 890 escapes between 1940-1990 and a score of full scale riots. There were also dozens of suicides and a few thousand suicide attempts, during the prison's last decades of operation.
A 1987 aerial photo of the main hall of the Oakalla prison complex in Burnaby, B.C., near Vancouver. Oakalla was completely demolished in 1992 at the insistence of the municipal government, and replaced by 531 "luxury" condo townhouses and rental apartments. It has been suggested that the ghosts of the men executed at Oakalla still haunt the hillside property. Research for THE GHOSTS OF OAKALLA has uncovered many extraordinary and compelling stories of its desperate inmates.

There have been just a handful of books published about Oakalla Prison and Earl Andersen's HARD PLACE TO DO TIME (1993) is probably the best of the bunch. Ironically, given the fact that Oakalla was always in the news, there have been no documentary films produced on its history or its incredible inmate population. Well we are now addressing that lack of foresight because time is running out. The survivors are dying off and living memory has become dull. Pre-production is underway and we will have an HD video short ready for viewing by mid-August. Any person or group with an interest in viewing THE GHOSTS OF OAKALLA should send me their contact information.

The isolation unit of the infamous Oakalla Prison in Burnaby, B.C. The institution had a fascinating and deeply troubled history. It housed a Who's Who of British Columbia criminals and political prisoners.

34 comments:

  1. Hello from the UK. My name is Malcolm Colcleugh. I am a Vancouver-born and raised writer and historian. I am currently living in London. I am very interested in your documentary. My brother did six months in Oakalla (Westgate B) when he was just 21 (1974.) I thought that it was a Provincial Prison by that point though. Is that not the case? Have you completed the documentary?

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  2. excellent.

    I use to work as a historical search agent with the land title office and even then found it hard to find infor on this old prison.

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  3. hi, I did almost two years @ oakalla, spent my nineteenth B'day in the "digger" isolation cell also called a tiger cell because of the "stripe shadows" that were cast due to the lighting. I got 5 days in the hole for attemting to make a home brew in my cell to celebrate my B'day. They found it in my cell when I was at yard one day and when I got to "Wardens Court" there was my big (triple) garbage bag "still" sitting on his desk. The rest is history. Yes it WAS a hard place to do time. I have lots of memories, stories, (horror stories) beatings, suicides, and just about every kind of human misery one can think. It made Shawshank look like a Holiday Inn.Thank god I was young and in shape etc. I toughed it out and came out relatively unscathed, and... I can make a handcuff key from the lid of a sardine can, that WILL work, among other talents I picked up while there lol.One good thing came from my stay at Oakalla. I was on the road less travelled and when I was released in 1982 I never got in trouble with the law again. I'm now 46 and still living in Vancouver... crime free.

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    1. that is good news, hope you live a long and happy fulfilled life

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    2. RJ , yes I was in there for 6 months ,flown in from Fort Sask on a dc 10.Got put in west wing then because of a fight I got into was put in the digger for 2 weeks then transferred to east wing and told ... if u think your a good fighter lets see how you do in here . Most inmates had inside arms and were doing more time.

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    3. Glad to hear you doing well. I did a couple of stints in Oakie when an 18 year old (fortunately a big tall and strong kid) ...West wing, East wing, Westgate A and B...then off to Haney...now also torn down. I left there with a trade and never looked back. It is too bad that today's inmates don't get the option for trades training, or even the old forest camp work sites.

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  4. greeting canucks, i wa a prisoner in oakalla for 6 months awaiting trial on kidnapping chargesm, stemming from a child custody case i was working around june 85. i was aquitted in dec 85 ans yeah oakalla was no joke, the hacks were, for the most part pretty decent, although, as a rule most canadians hated "bounty hunters' which subsequent news article ravelaed me to be, in spite of many plots to "snuff" me, i did my time on 3 left 3 tier and in generally got myself into the best shape of my life. i harbor no resentment, andi managed to make friends with some of the times most notorious accused criminals. would i do it again, hell no. haqd i not been proven not guilty, i think it might have a bit different down the road for me. haha

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  5. Today I strolled the grounds of Deer Lake Park, the lake was formerly the unofficial septic tank of the prison that once occupied this land. I was looking intently for any remnants of what once stood here. The thoughts came flooding back, the infamous “Cow Barn” a segregation unit, accessed by a long set of stairs which go deep below the ground. A place that never saw the light of day.
    Death Row, located on the second tier of the south wing, where the condemned awaited their date with the executioner. West one where the addict population was separated from the regular prisoners. Raised to adult court when I was just a lad of 15, I was in my second year of a now obscure sentence that was given to young offenders. I had just been transferred to Oakalla
    for my part in a hostage taking and riot at another institution. Upon my arrival I found myself surrounded by some very angry guards who proceeded to literally tear the clothes off my back,
    my meager possessions, mostly letters were tossed to the floor and set alite. This was my first day in Oakalla, In every prison there are unwritten rules, a code of conduct that belongs to this exclusive subculture, stray from it’s precepts at your own pearl.
    As I strolled along the trails passing strangers along the way, I’d nod and smile, wondering to myself do these people know were it is they are walking? Many years have past since my days as a prisoner, I am, I think older and wiser. The old fortress of misery is a distant memory now.
    As I pass these strangers along these paths, I can’t help but feeling that I have been a witness to a place and time that they could not imagine or little understand.
    As we pass, I nod and smile, and slowly we each disappear in the distance.

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    1. Just wondering if you are still checking your blog replies? We are working on a documentary that includes a piece in Oakalla - one of the characters in the film was sentenced there to do two years in 1970 - and wondered if you might be available for an interview. Send me a reply at ahovden@gmail.com if you are interested.

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    2. I was there a couple months using fake adult name but didn't get O.R. this time I was a big kid heavy drinker at 16 I was terrified but kept it to myself most of all males in my faily have done time my uncle Alfred did 24 yrs bc pen so I had to represent my family I guess I felt lol. I saw a beautiful tanned girl looked about 16 or 17 thought it was wardens daughter she was at my cell block gate after we came in from yard damn it was a trans sexual passing a kite to inmate in my block mini skirt tank top real breasts I never heard of or seen one before it was a shock the whole experience being locked in block with guys doing 5 10 12 yrs in my block but they were comi9ng to court I was awaiting court so were mixed with muderers and impaired drivers in my block heavy shit for a 16 yr old

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  6. this is creepy I was in Oakalla in 77 and 79
    during my wild teen years .. still truamtized from that experience.

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  7. I spent a month in Oakie in 67 and another three weeks in 77. I remember mostly the absolute din in the place, and the strict inmate prohibition against whistling.

    I was 19 at first, on very minor charges both times. That was 45 years ago. I did a week in the hole under the cow barn for a fight with a guy playing handball. I remember somehow getting to see the gallows briefly, or the room where it had been.

    I guess in retrospect it was a desperate place. I still remember my first cell 3 Right 16. We would go down from our tier to the bottom landing where the food would be dished. The clearest memory I have is the smell of toast dipped in coffee at breakfast time.

    Corrections has come a long way in BC since then. So have I. I have an MBA and am on the faculty of a college, teaching business.

    It was all a very long time ago and this is a very interesting blog or whatever it is. To all those who were there and read this, I hope life has been good to you since.

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  8. As so many of the others before me, I too took part of the enchantment of Oakalla as an inmate. Not a very good one though, it would seem, as the correctional authorities saw fit to force me to serve my entire sentence on the roaming work gang.

    I didn't mind at all, really, since it allowed me the privelege of being outside. And, over time, everywhere. I can honestly say that I have been to almost every single place on the entire Oakalla prison property. The fields, the Dukhobor Hut, the (so-called) cemetery, the kennels...

    Resultantly, the allure of the graphic imagery of the place did not pass unnoticed, nor did the mysterious aura of the ghosts of inmates past and present fail to leave an indelible impression upon the soul.

    I'm very interested to hear of this project, and how it progresses. Where might one take part of your work?

    "...To all those who were there and read this, I hope life has been good to you since..."

    Yes, it has.

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  9. I had 2 Uncle's-in-law who were in prison. My father told me of one that spent 6 months in Oakalla back in 1932 - 1933. I would like to find out the dates he was imprisoned as my father told me that my aunt could not have gotten pregnant from him as that was when he was in prison.

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  10. Any person or group with an interest in viewing THE GHOSTS OF OAKALLA should send me their contact information.....''I'm very interested and can be contacted threw my you tube or Face Book .I spend a we bit of time there in the mid 70's ..Thank you and best of luck ...Albert Mag....

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    1. I can be contacted at abmvan2014@yahoo@yahoo.ca

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  11. hi i was in oakalla in the early 80s i was 24 then and still remember walking down my tier to find a guy living in my cell so being a first timer i agree to sleep in his filthy house for the night until the screws caught on in the morning when they yelled my name for court you just imagine the rest of the story...............

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  12. Hello All

    I am looking for anyone who may have information on the locking system used at Oakalla. I have obtained a wheel that I have been told was used to lock the cells at the prison.

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    1. Hmmnnn....no ideas, but it brings up the memory of a shoestring with a knot in the end...we would discretly tuck the shoelace knot in the lock hole, and close our cell door....then when they went to double lock the cells, you could pull up the lock and release the door....the nefarious purpose beign to play cards with your neighbor down tier when others went out to yard.

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  13. Hi,

    I work for an independent television production company named Thinking Violets based in the UK. We are currently developing a documentary for BBC Television about the plastic surgery programs that were common in US and Canadian Prisons in the 20th Century, particularly in Oakalla Prison.

    It will be a testimony-driven documentary about this fascinating chapter in penal history, in which prison inmates were offered plastic surgery to improve their facial appearance and thus their chances of getting a job, reintegrating into society and avoiding a life of crime.

    I am currently looking for a range of speakers - former inmates who participated in the plastic surgery programs, prison officers, parole officers, wardens, and plastic surgeons to navigate through this story.

    I would like to hear from anyone who might have been involved in some way, in confidence.

    Please e-mail
    Harriet@thinkingviolets.com

    Very many thanks.

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  14. My dad was a guard at Oakalla for 17 years. I grew up living first hand during the time when Clifford Robert Olson roamed the lower Mainland. He and his wife attempted to abduct me when I walked to a corner grocery store not far from our house on Number 4 Road in Richmond but ran into the store and got away. I remember when they caught that bastard. They found one of his victims, a boy, strangled with a belt and nailed to a telephone pole not 3 blocks from our school. I remember the stories my Dad and his best friend Rod Devries who was also a guard there told us. I know what they inflicted on him there and deservedly so. I also remember the times when a few prisoners escaped (Gary Hecic and one other - his last name was White) with a hit list of guards they were going to kill on the outside. My Dad's name was at the top of that list...What would you like to know about growing up a guard who worked exclusively in the south wing? You can contact me at mlavallee39@gmail.com if you have any questions.

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  15. My mum was a prisoner here from 1987-90?
    She never said much if anything about her stay here
    from what i hear though it was pretty terrible.
    Anyone in the female wing maybe have stories?

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  16. I was a inmate in that hell hole. I will never forget that place! Was then transferred to the new prison in maple ridge that replaced that hole. That place would make anyone go straight!

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  17. I was in okalla in 1979 2Left4 in the West wing or westgate I still have nightmares and I was only 18 1st time in jail and very frightened met up with people that would terify the normal person the 2 individuals I remember that scared me the most was a pair I only knew as gypsie and mo they were there for attempted murder they apparently beat up a army guy real bad threw him off a bridge and he landed on a set of railrod tracks which were below the bridge after which a train ran over the fellow but the catch is he lived to testify or so the story goes I never knew what happened to them I got out before they went to court but I'm sure they got what they deserved another memories is of a guard a real asshole we all called him Igor he was a very bad dude and made every inmate he ever felt with suffer and he enjoyed it and there are more things I went through there changed me forever I hated it there and was glad to hear it was finally closed down it wasn't fit for man or beast

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  18. RJ . to continue my story when they transferred me to west wing I started playing hand ball with this huge bald headed fellow and started to become friends . Then a con took me aside and asked me if I knew the guy I was playing hand ball with . I said yeah he is cool . The con said do you know how many young guys he has raped ? Next thing I know this guy has gotten himself on my tier . Not to worry though all the guys on my tier informed the guard that if he was not removed that they would carry him out in body bag . I remember reading the Day of the Jackall when I was in the Digger . No cigarettes ,which was called daily mail tobacco , washroom was a bucket with Lysol in it . Guys back at the tier (west wing ) would remove filaments from light bulbs and make needles to inject pain killers . Their arms were a mess. Sure taught me a lesson and never got in trouble again to this day

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  19. I was incarcerated in the Oakalla Womens Prison called the "cathouse" longest stretch was from 1977 to 1979...I escaped custody one time and was happy to get away from the drama and contempt of the other inmates and guards that were there...I remember one inmate had an affair with a male guard and married him when she got out..it never worked and she later died from a drug over dose. I would be standing in my cell changing and males guards would intentionally walk into my cell. That was awful, as well some of the guards were on the take and would provide us with hacksaw blades for escapes if we paid them off with jewelry..and some would pack drugs and other contraband for us. Times were tough in there and one christmas we rioted and ended up down in the cow barns...I now have a criminal pardon and work in Corrections..only because I know I do a way better job then they ever did...

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  20. Would anyone remember Murray Allan Boyd. He was in there several times from 1962 to 1970. He escaped many times using various ways. He was shot and killed while out on April 21 1970. Doing a history on him any stories or help would be great. Can e mail me at melody_holden@hotmail.com. Ty in advance.

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  21. I spent 2 months in the West Wing and 5 months in the South Wing back in 1980/81. It was a learning experience to say the least....

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  22. 5left 8...5 right 13...westgate b...haircuts 1 left east....weekenders west wing... handball..guns fired over head .... shankings.... 16 scared straight 17 remanded..... 30 years later and 6 years clean.

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  24. I've served 2 sentences at Okalla prison, 1 for 12 months I was only 17yrs old, 2)second for 2 years less a day. I've seen everything there were to see at the prison. This place was very brutal only the strong minded lasted, the weak didn't.

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