British Columbia

Isolating youth held in custody can create 'serious harms,' says B.C. Ombudsperson

An investigaton found that the average time of isolation at the Burnaby Youth Custody Services Centre tripled between 2017 abd 2019, from 36 hours to 108 hours.

Jay Chalke says reform is needed to ensure isolation is used only as a last resort

Entrance to the Burnaby Youth Custody Services Centre. (Google Maps)

The B.C. Ombudsperson is recommending changes to the law after an investigation into the use of isolation for youth detainees found that the average duration of separated confinement increased three-fold at the Burnaby Youth Custody Services Centre from 2017 to 2019.

The new report entitled Alone: The Prolonged and Repeated Isolation of Youth in Custody, says the practice of indeterminate isolation is "unjust," "oppressive," and disproportionately affects Indigenous and racialized female youths.

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

"And in those cases, strict time limits and effective, independent oversight is necessary to prevent the serious harms that this practice can cause," said Jay Chalke, B.C. Ombudsperson.

The report found that although instances of putting youth in isolation at the Burnaby facility decreased over the three years studied, the average time spent in isolation increased from 36 hours to 108 hours.

Currently, there is no mechanism in place to limit the use of isolation in youth custody, which the report said "occurs with few meaningful safeguards and little effective oversight."

Prolonged isolation of over 72 hours at a time was found to be most commonly used for females who were suicidal or self-harming.

In the most extreme instance, one youth was segregated a total of 78 days in an 81-day period. Others experienced confinements of 38 days, 41 days and 47 days.

According to Chalke, separate confinement is often accompanied by the repeated use of force, including the forced removal of clothing. Interactions with a mental health worker take place through the meal slot in the door. 

"The conditions in which these youth were separately confined were neither supportive nor therapeutic," he said. "These measures diminished the youth's sense of autonomy and privacy, and it is very likely that they retraumatized youth who had significant, known, histories of trauma."

Chalke said putting youth in isolation is fundamentally inconsistent with the Ministry of Children and Family Development's commitments to use trauma-informed practice.

The report lays out 26 recommendations, including: 

  • Reform B.C.'s Youth Custody Regulation laws to prohibit the separate confinement for more than 22 consecutive hours, with no exceptions.

  • Establish a maximum number of times a youth can be separately confined within a specified period.

  • Prohibit separate confinement for particularly vulnerable youth or those under age 16.

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

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

In response, the Minster of Children and Family Development repeated what she said last week after a report into Indigenous youth in care was released by the B.C. Children and Youth Representative. 

"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," said Mitzi Dean.

Dean also took issue with how some the data in the Ombudsperson's report was categorized. 

"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," she said.

The report used data collected at the Burnaby and Prince George Youth Custody Services Centres between Jan. 1, 2017, to Dec. 31, 2019. It examined 307 instances of separate confinement experienced by 110 youths.

Youth are defined as those age 12 to 17 who are not considered adults nor subject to the adult corrections system.

Youth detainees can be held in youth custody centres while awaiting trial or after being sentenced criminally.