'Horrific use of force': Alarm raised over escalating use of pepper spray on Alberta young offenders

Alberta Justice is being urged to stop the escalating use of pepper spray on young inmates.

'You're using this very noxious material that causes pain and suffering to another human being — to a child'

In the first eight months of 2017, inmates were sprayed at the Edmonton Young Offender Centre and the Calgary Young Offender Centre 10 times. (CBC)

Alberta Justice is being urged to stop the escalating use of pepper spray on young inmates.

Between 2012 and 2014, pepper spray was used in facilities for young offenders in Calgary and Edmonton just once.

In the first eight months of 2017, guards pepper sprayed youths 10 times.

Previously, using pepper spray required bringing in a tactical team from an adult correctional facility. That policy changed last year.    

Now, trained staff on site can administer the spray.

"They're getting comfortable using it and that's the scary part," said Mark Cherrington, a social justice advocate in Edmonton.
Youth advocate Mark Cherrington said the use of pepper spray is causing pain and suffering to children. (Giselle Rosario)

"You're using this very noxious material that causes pain and suffering to another human being — to a child."

Cherrington has heard from some of those youth.

"I see trauma in their eyes. I hear trauma in their voices," he said.

Child advocate Del Graff said he's never found an adequate explanation for the policy change. There hasn't been a change in overall behaviour and young-offender populations have declined.

He said he wants to know "why there is still a need to stick with this renewed policy when you can see the use of pepper spray in the facilities is escalating." Some youth, said Graff, have been sprayed "a number of times."

Graff has been raising his concerns with Justice Minister Kathleen Ganley and senior staff for more than a year.

Resolve situations more quickly

Alberta Justice defended the policy change in an emailed statement to CBC News, noting staff are exposed to pepper spray during their training.

"By having onsite staff trained on how to use it, staff can resolve situations more quickly and with minimal intrusion to the young offender and any other nearby young offenders," the statement said.

Alberta Justice said pepper spray is administered only after trying to de-escalate the situation through such steps as establishing dialogue and assessing body language.  

"Spray is not used as a behavioural tool — it is used in circumstances to avoid the use of greater force which could result in injuries to youth or staff," said the department.

But Cherrington said what was meant as an alternative to use of force hasn't evolved that way.

"It's pepper spraying and then the take down," said Cherrington.
Child advocate Del Graff said research shows pepper spray is not an appropriate response due to emotional and health impacts. (CBC)
He recognized the necessity of physical means such as restraints and lockdowns if youth or staff are at risk of imminent harm but emphasized it must be well-monitored.

From January 2015 until the end of May 2016, Alberta Justice banned the use of pepper spray at both youth facilities. It's not clear why.

Its use has been under internal review by Alberta Justice since December 2016.

"I'm hoping the review will expose the truth of what it is — that pepper spray is completely abhorrent and a horrific use of force on children in Alberta," said Cherrington.

As the use of pepper spray on young people ramps up in Alberta, Graff said it's declining elsewhere in Canada.

He said ample research shows it's not an appropriate response due to its emotional impact and health concerns.

"There's just a whole host of possible very adverse consequences that can come from that," he said. "Not to mention the longer term kinds of implications that can come from the experience of it being traumatic to these young people."



Andrea Huncar


Andrea Huncar reports on human rights and justice. Contact her in confidence at andrea.huncar@cbc.ca