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Based on facts either observed and verified firsthand by the reporter, or reported and verified from knowledgeable sources.

Corrections document shows why a violent prison escapee was transferred to minimum-security William Head

A warden overrode Zachary Armitage’s risk classification to allow his transfer to William Head from a medium-security prison, according to a restricted internal report. Now he’s on trial for a murder allegedly committed during his escape.

By Tori Marlan
August 18, 2022
Crime
News
Based on facts either observed and verified firsthand by the reporter, or reported and verified from knowledgeable sources.

Corrections document shows why a violent prison escapee was transferred to minimum-security William Head

A warden overrode Zachary Armitage’s risk classification to allow his transfer to William Head from a medium-security prison, according to a restricted internal report. Now he’s on trial for a murder allegedly committed during his escape.

By Tori Marlan
Aug 18, 2022
William Head Institution. Photo: Zoë Ducklow / Capital Daily
William Head Institution. Photo: Zoë Ducklow / Capital Daily
Crime
News
Based on facts either observed and verified firsthand by the reporter, or reported and verified from knowledgeable sources.

Corrections document shows why a violent prison escapee was transferred to minimum-security William Head

A warden overrode Zachary Armitage’s risk classification to allow his transfer to William Head from a medium-security prison, according to a restricted internal report. Now he’s on trial for a murder allegedly committed during his escape.

By Tori Marlan
August 18, 2022
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Corrections document shows why a violent prison escapee was transferred to minimum-security William Head
William Head Institution. Photo: Zoë Ducklow / Capital Daily

The 2019 escape of two inmates from William Head Institution has resulted in a lawsuit against the Correctional Service of Canada (CSC). How those inmates ended up in a prison with the lowest security level has been an outstanding question.

An internal CSC report—the contents of which have not been made public before now—details the thinking behind a security classification override given to Zachary Armitage, a prisoner with a history of violent crimes and four previous escapes. The override lowered Armitage’s assigned security level, allowing him to be transferred from Mission Institution, a medium-security prison in the Fraser Valley, to William Head, the minimum-security prison from which he later escaped.

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William Head sits on the southwestern tip of the Island and is surrounded by the ocean on three sides. The eight-foot fence in front of the prison stops short of the water, and inmates can freely walk the grounds.

Armitage arrived there in early 2018. At some point he befriended James Lee Busch. Like Armitage, Busch had a violent past and had received a security classification override from the Mission Institution warden. 

As Capital Daily previously reported, William Head correctional officers were warned in the summer of 2019 that Busch was a “ticking time bomb.” Some began to think he wasn’t an appropriate fit for the institution. A correctional manager wrote to colleagues that Busch might need to be relocated to a higher security environment.

But that never happened. 

On July 7, 2019, Busch and Armitage made their way along the shoreline at low tide, sidestepped the unserious fence, and walked away. Crown prosecutors allege that in the two days they were on the run, they murdered a 60-year-old Metchosin resident named Martin Payne. They will face trial for Payne’s murder in the fall.

Last month, Martin’s daughters, Calla and Jessica Payne, filed a civil claim in BC’s Supreme Court, alleging that CSC “breached the standard of care owed to members of the public” and that their father’s death was a “direct and foreseeable consequence” of that breach. 

The lawsuit pins numerous failures, before and after the escape, on CSC and its employees. Among them: the inmates weren’t adequately supervised, the perimeter wasn’t properly secured, and the police and public weren’t notified of the escape in a timely manner.

The prisoners’ security classification overrides are central to the claim of CSC liability. 

Busch and Armitage should never have been sent to William Head, the claim suggests, as operational decisions regarding their security level “were negligent, reckless and contrary to CSC policy.” 

In the wake of the escape, CSC initiated case reviews for all minimum-security inmates and implemented policy changes intended to strengthen the security classification process.

Regarding the lawsuit, CSC told Capital Daily that it is reviewing the claim and would not be able to provide further comment. 

Reclassified to minimum security

Armitage appeared before Judge Roger Cutler in Colwood’s Provincial Court in the fall following his recapture. In sentencing him for the escape from William Head, the judge marvelled at the fact that he was in that facility to begin with.

“Given the offender's prior violent record and his history of escaping lawful custody, including four prior convictions, I was perplexed as to why at the time of his escape the offender was serving his sentence at a minimum security institution,” he wrote in his sentencing decision.

The answer to his confusion lay in a restricted internal report called an Assessment for Decision.

Prisoners across the country are housed in maximum, medium, or minimum security environments based on their security classification. Reclassification can happen at any point.

The process involves the Security Reclassification Scale (SRS), an automated tool that ranks an inmate’s security level with a numerical value. The score is based on such inputs as the nature of the offence and the prisoner’s behaviour in custody. 

Humans also get to weigh in directly. Parole officers and case management teams consider an inmates’ institutional adjustment, risk of escape, and risk to public safety.

When a warden decides to give an inmate a security classification that’s either higher or lower than what the automated tool has assigned, it’s called an override. 

According to the Payne sisters’ civil complaint, Busch repeatedly fought with other inmates at Mission Institution and had once been found with a metal shank in his cell. At the time of his override, he was serving a life sentence for strangling a woman but was expected to be eligible for parole in 2025. 

A William Head correctional officer and staff member previously told Capital Daily that Busch’s override was unusual because it entailed dropping his “risk to public safety” rating straight from high to low, without it first dropping to medium. Overrides tend to be more gradual, they said.

When Armitage received his override in February 2018, he was more than halfway through an almost 14-year sentence for multiple offences, including an aggravated assault and robbery in which the victim suffered life-altering injuries that, years later, led to his death. With a little more than two years left until he was due to be released, he requested a transfer to William Head, which is known as a “releasing institution,” where prisoners have access to programs and activities that can help them reintegrate into society. But Armitage’s security level was medium, so he was ineligible for the transfer.

Photo: Zoë Ducklow / Capital Daily

Mission Institution reassessed his security level in response to the transfer request. On Feb. 2, 2018, he received a new SRS score of 19. A couple of points lower would have placed him in the discretionary range for minimum security, but 19 was a solid medium. 

Three days later, his case management team recommended an override to lower his security level to minimum. It also recommended that his transfer request to William Head be approved. 

The reasons for the recommendations are laid out in the Assessment for Decision, which CSC, the Crown, and Armitage’s lawyer fought to keep hidden from the public but which Capital Daily successfully obtained access to through a court process. 

“[T]he circumstances surrounding the escape by Mr. Armitage have undermined the public’s confidence in our correction system in Canada,” Judge Cutler wrote in deciding to allow Capital Daily access to the document. 

“Refusing the public access to critical information relied on by the court in determining a fit sentence for Mr. Armitage, information provided the court by the same correction system, presents a very real risk that the court will be dragged into the same quagmire as the corrections system, causing the public to lose confidence in the justice system.”

The 12-page assessment report is a testament to the misplaced confidence CSC had in the progress of Armitage’s rehabilitation. 

In 2016, Armitage was given a low rating for institutional adjustment, a moderate rating for escape risk, and a low rating for risk to public safety. 

At his security level reassessment in 2018, his case management team changed his escape risk to low—despite an escape he had just pulled off two years before.

A low risk of escape

The assessment report describes Armitage as someone with no significant behavioural problems. It also describes him as “polite” and “compliant” in his interactions with staff and inmates and says that he appeared “motivated, respectful, and sincere in his efforts to improve and work towards a successful reintegration as a productive member of society.” 

Although Armitage hadn’t been involved in any violent incidents in the time since his last security review, the report does reference one “serious institutional charge” that had occurred within the previous year: Armitage had provided a urine sample that tested positive for THC. 

The report also notes that Armitage had been transferred from Mission to a minimum-security institution once before, and it hadn’t gone well. In January 2016, nine days after arriving at Kwìkwèxwelhp Healing Village, he escaped with another inmate. An RCMP canine team apprehended them after they were spotted riding bicycles. Armitage sustained dog bite injuries. After he was treated in the hospital, he was sent back to Mission Institution, where he learned that if six months to a year passed without “any noted concerns,” he could again be considered for a minimum security placement. 

“It has taken Mr. Armitage two years to achieve this goal,” the report says. “However, as he has now been incident-free for nine months, the Case Management Team is supportive of a security reclassification and transfer to minimum security.”

At the time, Armitage was experiencing a “significant period” of stability and was mentoring a “vulnerable” inmate in his unit. 

“The Case Management Team, unit staff, Elders, and Aboriginal Liaison Officers have all observed that Mr. Armitage presents as a motivated, insightful and pro-social individual,” the report says.

Armitage’s extensive violent history is detailed in the report. But the case management team found that he’d “demonstrated significant progress in addressing the dynamic factors which contributed to his criminal behaviour.” 

Armitage was credited for accepting responsibility for his actions and recognizing the contributing factors to his criminal offences: “There has been no evidence of denial, minimization, justification, or blame in regards to his criminal behaviour. Mr. Armitage displays both guilt and victim empathy, and does not minimize the seriousness of his offences.”

Also working in Armitage’s favour: he’d upgraded his academic record, attaining another level of basic adult education, and had successfully completed the programming recommended in his correctional plan, as well as “maintenance” programming. And as someone who wasn’t “a high profile offender,” the report notes, he was unlikely to receive a “negative public reaction” or “significant media coverage.”

Most pertinent to the lawsuit, perhaps, is the changing of Armitage’s escape risk rating. The case management team did not believe that he posed an escape risk. He had no known plans to break away, according to a security intelligence officer, and there were “no indications of impulsivity, drug use, or any other factors” that would contribute to an elevated risk for escape, according to the report.   

Although the report acknowledges his previous escapes from custody, including the one that ended in dog bites, it calls them “dated in nature” and says that Armitage had no “current indicators of escape potential.”  

But if he were to escape, the report notes, “no public safety risk is anticipated.”

Now the Crown alleges that Armitage, less than a year and a half after the report was written, walked away from his new minimum-security placement and murdered Martin Payne in his home. Armitage and Busch each received a yearlong sentence for the escape.

The Payne sisters are seeking unspecified punitive damages, claiming “grievous psychological harm” as a result of CSC’s “acts and omissions,” as well as the loss of financial support, inheritance, and “guidance, care, and companionship.”

Article Author's Profile Picture
Tori Marlan
Investigative Reporter

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Corrections document shows why a violent prison escapee was transferred to minimum-security William Head
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