Isolating youth held in custody can create ‘severe harms,’ says B.C. Ombudsperson

BC Ombudsperson recommends legislative changes after an investigation into the use of solitary confinement for juvenile detainees found that the average length of separate detention at the Burnaby Youth Custody Services Center tripled from 2017 to 2019.

The new report, titled Alone: ​​The Prolonged and Repeated Isolation of Youth in Custody, says the practice of indefinite isolation is “unjust”, “oppressive” and disproportionately affecting indigenous and racialized female youth.

“… the key point is this: juveniles in custody should not be isolated from other imprisoned juveniles except as a last resort when all other options have failed.

“And in these cases, strict deadlines and effective, independent oversight are required to prevent the serious harm this practice can cause,” said Jay Chalke, BC ombudsman.

The report found that the average time spent in solitary confinement increased from 36 hours to 108 hours, although the number of cases of teenagers being isolated at the Burnaby facility decreased over the three years studied.

There is currently no mechanism to limit the use of isolation in juvenile detention, which, according to the report, “comes with few sensible protective measures and ineffective supervision”.

Longer isolation of over 72 hours has been found to be most commonly used in women who have been suicidal or self-harming.

In the most extreme case, an adolescent was separated for a total of 78 days in a period of 81 days. Others were detained for 38 days, 41 days and 47 days.

Solitary confinement is often associated with repeated violence, including forcible removal of clothing, according to Chalke. Interactions with a psychiatrist take place through the food slot in the door.

“The conditions under which these youths were detained separately were neither supportive nor therapeutic,” he said. “These interventions reduced the youth’s sense of autonomy and privacy, and it is very likely that they retraumatized teenagers who had a significant, well-known history of trauma.”

Chalke said isolating young people is fundamentally incompatible with the Department of Child and Family Development’s commitments to use trauma-informed practices.

The report contains 26 recommendations, including:

  • Reform of BC’s Youth Protection Act to prohibit separate accommodation for more than 22 consecutive hours without exception.

  • Determine the maximum number of times a young person can be locked up separately within a certain period of time.

  • Prohibit solitary confinement for particularly vulnerable young people or people under the age of 16.

  • Require consideration of the social history of indigenous youth in all custody decisions.

  • Establish trauma-informed and culturally safe care for adolescents with complex mental health needs.

In response, the Minister for Child and Family Development reiterated what she said last week after the BC Children and Youth Commissioner published a report on indigenous youth in care.

“Both the child welfare system and the justice system are overly involved in the lives of indigenous peoples, children and families. It is part of the harmful colonial legacy that continues to this day and as part of our commitment to reconciliation we need to address it directly, “said Mitzi Dean.

Dean also objected to the categorization of some of the data in the ombudsperson’s report.

“With BC juvenile detention rates among the lowest in Canada, there are cases where teenagers, especially girls, are detained alone. Although we do not consider this separate detention, the Ombudsperson has included these circumstances in their data, ”she said.

The report uses data collected between January 1, 2017 and December 31, 2019 at the Burnaby and Prince George Juvenile Prison Centers. He examined 307 cases of solitary confinement in 110 adolescents.

Adolescents are people between the ages of 12 and 17 who are neither considered adults nor are they subject to the adult correction system.

Juvenile detainees can be held in juvenile detention centers while awaiting trial or convicted after a criminal conviction.

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