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British Columbia B.C. watchdog concerned over ‘temporary’ youth custody centre

British Columbia’s representative for children Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond, pictured in 2011, says she’s concerned about the way in which young offenders are being shuttled to the Victoria Youth Custody Centre ahead of court dates, as well as how they’re spending their time at the facility.

DARRYL DYCK/THE CANADIAN PRESS

British Columbia's children's representative says the Victoria Youth Custody Centre is operating as a "shadow facility" for young offenders awaiting court dates, more than two years after the province announced the centre would close.

The representative's comments come as documents released through a Freedom of Information request shed new light on an incident at Victoria's airport in August, when a young person who was being transported from Victoria to a facility in the Lower Mainland temporarily escaped custody and led correctional staff on a chase through a wooded area.

The B.C. government announced in April, 2014, that the Victoria centre would close, citing high costs and empty beds. It said young offenders being held in Victoria would be transferred off the island to facilities in either Burnaby or Prince George.

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Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond, B.C.'s representative for children, said she's concerned about the way in which young offenders are being shuttled to the centre ahead of court dates, as well as how they're spending their time at the facility.

"Essentially, what we've done in British Columbia is taken cost-cutting moves and treated kids like groceries," she said in an interview. "We have a central distribution centre in Burnaby, and everything's coming in and going out of there."

Ms. Turpel-Lafond said moving young offenders between the Lower Mainland and Vancouver Island has proven to be a "chaotic process."

Ms. Turpel-Lafond said there is no programming at the Victoria facility and young prisoners are confined to their cells."Take a 13-year-old that has mental-health [issues] and trauma, put them in an environment where they're essentially in solitary confinement for 13 hours … and then put them into a courtroom. What happens? These kids fall apart," she said.

Dean Purdy, a spokesperson for the B.C. Government and Service Employees' Union, which represents staff at the centre and argued against its closure, said the centre is the only place where young offenders can be held in Victoria ahead of court dates.

"Prior to this, they would be in a facility where they weren't locked up all the time, they would co-exist with other kids in a living-unit setting," he said in an interview. "… Now what happens is they're locked up in a cell."

The Ministry of Children and Family Development said in a statement that the Victoria Youth Custody Centre has technically closed but the ministry has a "short-term temporary overnight housing unit" at the site.

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"The temporary holding area is a 'satellite' unit of the Burnaby Youth Custody Centre," it said.

The ministry said the unit was used an average of three nights a month between April, 2015, and December, 2015.

Ms. Turpel-Lafond's office said for fiscal year 2015-16, the centre was used 38 times for overnight stays. It said the centre was used 128 times between September, 2014, and January, 2016, but not all of those stays were overnight – some might have only been for a few hours.

The ministry said the centre now costs just over $9,000 a month to run, while it cost more than $390,000 as month when it was fully operational. It said direct travel costs involving the transportation of youth to and from Victoria in 2015-16 were approximately $60,000.

The ministry said there has only been one attempted escape when transporting young offenders between Victoria and Burnaby.

An incident report, written by a correctional officer and recently released through a Freedom of Information request, said that incident occurred on Aug. 5.

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The officer said the youth involved had been moved from a "secure car" to one driven by an airport commissionaire. The officer said the youth was being driven to the tarmac, with two correctional officers inside the same vehicle, when he "opened the door and bolted." That set off a chase in which even a cab driver who witnessed the incident began running after the youth.

"[The youth] ran to a wooded area and ran through the trees. I entered the same area but further to the right to try to cut him off," the officer said.

The officer and the youth emerged from the first wooded area and the chase continued into a second, "just before the main road."

"I could not see him but I knew he was very close to my location," the officer said. "I stood there for a few seconds very quietly. I could hear branches breaking. I slowly moved in that direction. I then saw [the youth] attempting to duck down and hide behind a tree. I circled around and apprehended [him]."

The youth was taken back to the Lower Mainland by ferry later that night. The officer said he eventually asked the youth why he ran. The youth initially said he did not know, but later said it involved an action taken by correctional staffers. The specific action was redacted from the document.

"If we didn't do that he would have never ran," the officer said.

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When asked if the incident led to new measures, the ministry said prior to the incident its "secure transport" was not allowed on the tarmac. It said the airport has since agreed to change that policy.

The documents said the youth received 72 hours of "separate confinement" as a result of the incident.

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