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Child advocate warns about use of pepper spray, segregation in Alberta young offender centres

Alberta's child advocate is calling for more oversight into the use of pepper spray and segregation at young offender centres in Calgary and Edmonton.

'Instruments of restraint and force should only be used in exceptional circumstances'

Alberta's child advocate says the use of pepper spray and segregation and youth corrections lacks oversight. (Peerayot/Shutterstock)

The use of pepper spray and segregation in Alberta young offender centres can re-traumatize incarcerated youth and harm their chances of rehabilitation, Child and Youth Advocate Del Graff warns in a new report.

The report, released Monday, calls for a review of segregation practices, improved training for correctional officers, and increased transparency around how often young offenders are being pepper sprayed or placed in isolation. 

In an interview with CBC News, Graff said he has previously raised concerns with Alberta Justice, but there has been "virtually no change in the increase of use in both segregation and [pepper] spray."

Pepper spray has been used 60 times on 114 young people in custody since youth correctional officers started carrying pepper spray in 2016, the report says. Between 2012 and 2015, the chemical compound was used only once at Alberta's youth facilities. 

"By inflicting pain to control behaviour, the use of [pepper] spray can damage relationships with youth justice staff, undermine rehabilitation efforts, and further traumatize young people," the report says.

Before Alberta Justice weakened restrictions on pepper spray in 2016, only trained members of a specialized tactical team could deploy it in the province's two youth corrections centres.

At the time of the policy change, the government said the new allowances would be reviewed after six months. But three years later, Alberta Justice hasn't issued an update even as the use of the spray continues to increase in the correctional system.

'It's repetitive'

Correctional officers used pepper spray 19 times in the first eight months of 2019, more than the totals in three previous years, the report says.

Alberta is one of four provinces that use pepper spray against young people in custody. Alberta uses it most, surpassing Manitoba in 2017, the report found. In the U.S., 35 states have banned pepper spray in juvenile detention facilities.

"At a time when most provinces don't use [pepper] spray at all, and those that do use it less often than Alberta, we seem to be going in the wrong direction," Graff told CBC.

The report raises concerns that pepper spray was used when other de-escalation techniques would have been more appropriate. 

Graff learned there were a number of reasons for the use of pepper spray, including negative behaviour like throwing a tray, fighting, and young people barricading themselves in cells. 

Child and Youth Advocate Del Graff looked at the use of pepper spray and segregation in Alberta's young offender centres. (CBC)

"I understand if there is a new kid who has never been to jail and he gets pepper sprayed that they are traumatized maybe," an unnamed youth inmate told the authors of the report. "If I get pepper sprayed, it's something that just happens. It's the way it is. It's repetitive."

One young offender said he had been in a detention centre in another province where pepper spray wasn't used.

"He said he didn't understand why Alberta had to be different. And that's a key kind of question that I've been raising for three years now, and I don't understand it either."

The report also points out inconsistencies in decontamination processes. In some cases, it took up to three hours for some young people to get access to decontamination showers to stop the burning sensation on the skin, eyes and mouth after pepper spray was used, the report noted. In other cases, they didn't get decontaminated.

Graff doesn't call for pepper spray to be banned. Instead, he recommends it only be used if there is an imminent risk of physical harm, such as a riot.

He appeals for Alberta Justice to monitor and publicly report pepper spray use annually. 

"Instruments of restraint and force should only be used in exceptional circumstances," his report says.

"The advocate believes it is imperative that if [pepper] spray is to be used in young offender centres, it should only be used as a last resort." 

No limit on 'administrative' segregation

The report criticizes a lack of oversight and legal authority surrounding the use of segregation when young offenders are removed from regular programs and placed in isolation for safety or punitive reasons. 

The latest numbers show 333 young people were segregated in 2017/18.

Of the total, 166 were segregated two or more times, and 18 were segregated 10 or more times.  

Alberta Justice currently places no time limit on segregation. Disciplinary segregation can't exceed 72 hours but there is no time limit on "administrative" segregation, which is used to ensure the safety and security of staff and inmates.

Some young offenders said they were segregated for days or weeks at a time. A couple of them said they were segregated for two months; one said five months.

"It is alarming that segregation occurs in Alberta's young offender centres without legislation to provide guidance and ensure accountability, transparency, and fairness," the report says.

The federal government recently introduced legislation to end solitary confinement in federal prisons. Several Canadian jurisdictions have legislation limiting the use of segregation. The report found no comparable safeguards for young people in Alberta young offender centres.

Young people told the advocate they were often segregated for the entire day, with only 30 to 60 minutes to shower, make phone calls or have recreation time. Other people reported feeling that recreation time or phone calls was conditional on behaviour.

In some segregation cells, the only place to sit was on a concrete floor, a bench or a bed frame without a mattress for most of the day. Mattresses and blankets were only provided during sleep hours.

"Stayed for over 80 hours — lights stayed on 24/7. No mattress the first night — second night, got mattress at 11 p.m. and removed again at 6 a.m.," one young person told the advocate. 

The report says segregation can cause mental health issues, from depression to psychosis, and intensify pre-existing mental illnesses. Several young people said they were not seen by a psychologist during their time in segregation.

Graff recommends Alberta Justice review and update its policies to limit the use of segregation and improve conditions in custody. He recommends the province develop an impartial complaints and review process for young people in custody.

An impartial committee that includes external stakeholders should hear complaints and reviews from young people who have been mistreated in custody, and provided with ready access to a supportive adult — such as the child advocate, Graff recommends.

About 90 young people, between the ages of 12 and 18, are held in youth corrections in Alberta on any given day, according to the report.