FOLLOWING a three-year investigation, Ombudsperson Jay Chalke finds the use of separate confinement in B.C.’s youth custody centres is unjust, unsafe and disproportionately impacts Indigenous youth.
In a special report released on Tuesday titled Alone: The Prolonged and Repeated Isolation of Youth in Custody, Chalke calls for changes to the province’s youth corrections laws and practices to set a maximum of 22 hours on separate confinement, treat youth remanded while awaiting trial or serving a custodial sentence more humanely and strengthen oversight.
“It is clear in Canadian case law as well as international standards that having no time limits on the separate confinement of youth is unacceptable,” said Chalke. “Our investigation found that young people were isolated for long periods and the ministry’s internal review processes did not limit these prolonged stays in separate confinement.”
The report draws on records from 2017 to 2019 from BC’s two youth custody centres located in Prince George and Burnaby. It finds that as the number of youth in custody declined, the instances of separate confinement also declined. However, the average duration of separate confinement increased three-fold at the Burnaby centre, from 36 hours to 108 hours. Three youth in particular were confined for long periods of time – 38 days, 41 days and 47 days. One youth was separately confined for 78 days over an 81-day period.
Prolonged isolation was most commonly used to respond to youth who were self-injuring or suicidal. Prolonged periods of isolation for these reasons were experienced almost exclusively by Indigenous and racialized girls.
The report also finds youth who were separately confined had limited and inconsistent access to educational, mental health and cultural supports. Isolation rooms posed safety risks for youth and staff. Communication, including meetings with mental health supports, sometimes took place through a door meal slot and youth in several cases were subjected to repeated use of force and forcible removable of their clothing.
“The ministry’s policy states it is committed to trauma-informed practice and it is past time that we see this commitment fully put into practice in relation to the use of separate confinement,” said Chalke, “Young people in custody should receive care that takes into account the trauma they have experienced and fully supports them to successfully reintegrate into society when released.”
The report makes 26 recommendations to the Ministry of Children and Family Development, all of which the government has indicated it will endeavour to implement including:
- Amend the Youth Custody Regulation to prohibit the use of separate confinement for more than 22 hours, limit the repeated use of separate confinement and prohibit the separate confinement of youth who are especially vulnerable to its harms, including those under the age of 16 and those with complex mental health needs.
- Complete an independent review of the use of force in youth custody that includes recommendations and associated plans for implementation that will be shared with the Ombudsperson.
- Develop and implement trauma-informed alternatives to separate confinement that include access to educational, mental health and cultural supports.
- Amend B.C.’s Youth Justice Act to require that youth in custody with complex mental health needs be transferred to a designated facility that is equipped to provide trauma-informed, culturally safe treatment for such youth.
- Amend B.C.’s Youth Justice Act to require consideration of the social history of Indigenous youth for all decisions made about them while in custody.
- Establish an independent review body that will review all separate confinement decisions and will have the power to order that youth be released from separate confinement.
- Establish regular inspections of youth custody centres in accordance with international standards that focus on legislative compliance and matters related to the health, safety and human rights of youth in custody including separate confinement and the use of force.
“I am encouraged that the ministry has committed to implement these recommendations, although the pace of implementation that they have set out reflects a concerning lack of urgency. It is time to give these issues – and these young people – the priority they need,” said Chalke.
To read the full report:
MITZI Dean, Minister of Children and Family Development, in response to the report from the Office of the British Columbia Ombudsperson, said in a statement:
“I want to thank the ombudsperson for this thorough report and the work that went into it. We are committed to the same goals: ensuring that youth in our care receive the best possible services to help them stay safe, be healthy and fulfil their potential. We accept the spirit and intent of the recommendations in the report and will incorporate them into the development of our youth justice framework.
“Both the child welfare system and the justice system are overly involved in the lives of Indigenous people, children and families. It is part of the damaging colonial legacy that continues to this day – and as part of our commitment to reconciliation, we need to address it head on.
“Since forming government in 2017, we have made transforming the system of supports and addressing the over-representation of Indigenous children and youth in care a priority. We recognize the implications that separate confinement can have on a youth’s mental health and wellness, particularly for Indigenous and racialized youth who have been disproportionately affected by this practice.
“Our province consistently has among the lowest numbers of youth in custody in Canada, going from an average daily count of 130 youth in custody in 2009-10 to an average of just 13 across the province today – including a daily average count of two youth at Prince George Youth Custody Services.
“Because B.C.’s youth custody rates are among the lowest in Canada, there are instances where youth, especially girls, are in custody by themselves. Although we do not consider this separate confinement, the ombudsperson included these circumstances in their data.
“While separate confinement is not used as a punitive measure for youth in B.C., we continue to commit to putting the best interests of youth first – using trauma-informed, culturally safe practices – and placing the young people we are caring for at the centre of everything we do. That’s why the ministry has made significant changes to its approach to youth custody, youth justice and separate confinement since 2017. Where possible, we have incorporated the findings from the ombudsperson’s review during that time.
“That said, we have more work to do. We must do more to ensure that youth who come into contact with the justice system can stay connected to their families and their culture and feel a strong sense of belonging in all aspects of their lives.”