Sheriff, Justice Ministry find woman a place to stay during Victoria hearing

When Whitney Rae Furber attends her preliminary hearing in Victoria provincial court this week, she’ll stay at the West Shore RCMP detachment where she’ll be able to have a shower.

Victoria police have refused to house Furber, who is charged with the attempted murder of a bouncer at the Strathcona Hotel, saying its cell block is inadequate and unsuitable for anyone staying longer than 24 hours.

On Saturday, West Shore RCMP Sgt. Scott Braes confirmed Furber is expected to stay there for three or four days.

Furber’s case has drawn attention to the lack of remand facilities for women on Vancouver Island, which provincial court judges have called shameful, discriminatory and profoundly unfair.

Last week, the West Coast Women’s Legal Education and Action Fund gave the province a D in a new report card on women’s equality, saying the absence of a remand facility has resulted in “grave violations” of women’s right to equal treatment.

In September, Furber successfully applied to Victoria provincial court to miss the first day of her preliminary inquiry to “avoid the misery of a weekend in Victoria police jail cells,” according to her defence lawyer Michael Munro.

Victoria police said in October that they wouldn’t house Furber during the preliminary inquiry. Although the women are kept in separate cells from men, they are not separated by sound from male prisoners, which contravenes provincial government standards.

There are no windows and no way to take female prisoners out for a breath of fresh air, said Insp. Grant Hamilton.

Many women who have spent time in cells complain about the noise made by intoxicated men yelling in the drunk tank, he said. But it’s not just the men making noise. Women who have been picked up for being intoxicated will also scream for hours at a time. Prisoners of both sexes bang, kick and rattle the steel doors of the cells.

After the police refusal, the Ministry of Justice issued a statement saying Sheriff Services have worked with local police and Furber will stay at a local law enforcement agency with shower facilities.

Furber, who is in custody at the Alouette Correctional Centre for Women in Maple Ridge, will travel to Victoria on Monday afternoon. The five-day hearing with her co-accused Grant Fletcher begins Monday morning.

Fletcher, who was arrested after a three-day manhunt, is in custody at the Vancouver Island Regional Correctional Centre. He is expected to attend all five days of the preliminary inquiry.

Lawyer Paul Pearson, co-chairman of the Canadian Bar Association’s criminal justice section in Victoria, said holding Furber in more reasonable conditions at the West Shore detachment is a positive first step.

“I’m optimistic the Minister of Justice is realizing the importance of treating these women with respect,” Pearson said.

“They are realizing that there’s a serious problem here that need to be fixed. The challenge is, of course, we still don’t have proper medical facilities or access to nursing care for these women.”

The solution is some kind of permanent facility on the Island where remanded women can be housed with some dignity, said Pearson.

The defence lawyer believes judges would happily allow women to serve their bail and await their trials at a supervised, secure, halfway house facility where they could be monitored and observe tough bail restrictions, even house arrest under supervision.

“We don’t need 20-foot walls and two-foot thick concrete to hold most of these women,” Pearson said.

In June, Justice Minister Suzanne Anton released a statement saying while she was sympathetic to the needs of female offenders, their needs must be balanced with government resources.

“At this time, there are no plans for additional capital investment on Vancouver Island,” the statement said.

Anton said she recently reminded the B.C. Association of Chiefs of Police of their obligations about the expectations of standards of care in police lockups.

“Provincial standards are clear — female inmates must be held separately from male inmates, fed, provided medical assistance and monitored — and we expect those standards to be upheld,” her statement said.

© Copyright Times Colonist

Paul Pearson comments in Times Colonist story by Louise Dickson on the unequal treatment of female prisoners on Vancouver Island.