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B.C.’s failure to address isolation of jailed youth an ‘embarrassment’: report

Ombudsperson says B.C. has implemented just 3 of 26 recommendations made in 2021
In a report released April 23, 2024, the BC Ombudsperson found B.C. is failing to take action to improve conditions for youth in custody who are placed in separate confinement. (Pixabay)

Three years after the B.C. Ombudsperson first raised the alarm on the province’s overuse of separate confinement in youth custody centres, the office says the provincial government has failed to fully implement 23 of the 26 recommendations it made.

In a progress report released Tuesday (April 23), Ombudsperson Jay Chalke called the lack of action by the Ministry of Children and Family Development a “cause for embarrassment.”

The Ombudsperson is an independent officer who investigates complaints against provincial and local authorities.

The office’s 2021 report, Alone: The Prolonged and Repeated Isolation of Youth in Custody, compiled the results of a three-year investigation into B.C.’s two youth custody centres in Prince George and Burnaby. It found the average time of isolation for youth placed in separate confinement – known elsewhere as solitary confinement – was 36 hours to 108 hours, but that four youth had been isolated for between 38 and 78 days.

Chalke said then that the confinement was most commonly used for suicidal or self-injuring youth, and that it was almost exclusively endured by Indigenous and racialized girls.

The report found that the young people who were isolated had limited access to education and mental health and cultural supports. In several cases, youth were subjected to use of force and the forcible removal of their clothing.

READ ALSO: B.C. ombudsperson labels youth confinement in jail ‘unsafe,’ calls for changes

Chalke made 26 recommendations for improving conditions, including limiting the use of separate confinement in general and restricting its length to a maximum of 22 hours. The Ombudsperson also asked B.C. to implement better oversight of facilities, order an independent review of the use of force and implement policies to ensure Indigenous youth aren’t disproportionately harmed.

At the time, the then minister of child and family development, Minister Mitzi Dean, said they would implement the recommendations into a new youth justice framework they had in the works.

But, in his report on Tuesday, Chalke said youth today continue to be separately confined for long periods of time. Chalke noted the number of youth in custody has been steadily declining and so have the incidents of isolation, but that it is still happening.

“To say I am disappointed is an understatement,” he said in a statement.

Of his 26 recommendations, Chalke said the Ministry of Children and Family Development has fully implemented just three to date, made progress on another eight and taken no steps on the other 15.

Two of the three implemented recommendations had to do with introducing a body scanner to detect contraband material, such as drugs. In the past, custody centre staff would stick youth who they suspected of carrying contraband into isolation until they could discover what they had on them.

A body scanner was brought into the Burnaby centre in 2021. Since then, staff have used it to conduct 677 scans, none of which detected contraband. As a result, none of those youth were placed in separate confinement.

The third implemented recommendation was the commissioning of an independent review of the Independent Observation Unit, where youth were isolated, to determine its physical and cultural safety. As a result of the review, the unit was shut down on Dec. 1, 2022. Chalke said the ministry hasn’t informed his office where youth have been separately confined since then.

Speaking Tuesday, he said the ministry’s lack of action over the last three years indicates to him that the well-being of youth in custody simply isn’t their top priority. He insisted that the ministry to take the issue more urgently.

“I am calling on the ministry to account for and address its delay in meaningfully implementing the recommendations, in order to ensure more humane treatment of youth remanded while awaiting trial or serving a custodial sentence.”

Speaking with Black Press Media later in the day, Minister of Children and Family Development Grace Lore noted that she is only four months into the role, but said reviewing the report and ensuring work is being done on the recommendations is in fact a priority for her.

“I have also made it clear that it’s my expectation as minister that in absolutely every case possible that kids who are in our custody are not experiencing prolonged periods of disconnection and isolation.”

Lore said ongoing legal action prevents the ministry from reporting publicly on some efforts it is making on the recommendations. She said she couldn’t provide a timeline on when they would make more progress, but said she is committed to bettering conditions for youth in custody.

-With files from Wolf Depner

READ ALSO: B.C. to have just 1 youth custody centre after Prince George site closes

About the Author: Jane Skrypnek

I'm a provincial reporter for Black Press Media after starting as a community reporter in Greater Victoria.
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