Mother of teen inmate critical of new pepper spray policy

The 17-year-old calls his mother almost every night. That’s how she found out he was pepper sprayed by guards at the Edmonton Young Offender Centre in June 2016.

Policies at youth facilities in Calgary and Edmonton changed in June

A teen was pepper sprayed twice recently at the Edmonton Young Offender Centre. (CBC)

Brandon has been in and out of youth jail for the past five years.

The 17-year-old calls his mother, Lori, almost every night. That's how she found out he had been pepper sprayed by guards at the Edmonton Young Offender Centre in June.

"The first time he said he was being a little jerk," Lori said.  "He put the paper on his window, and of course the officers told him to take it down, and he just didn't feel like it. So he mouthed off, which is pretty common practice for him. 

"Then they came in, pushed him to the ground. And there were seven guards, I believe he said. And they pepper sprayed him."

Brandon, not his real name, was at the centre of a case highlighted by CBC earlier this month. That's when Lori discovered her son had been pepper sprayed again in July.

"He said the second time was more painful," she said. "Because they had sprayed under the door before they came into the room. So he'd already gotten a dose."

At the beginning of June, guidelines governing the use of pepper spray changed at the youth jails in Edmonton and Calgary.

Trained staff inside the facilities are now allowed to administer it. Previously, a regional response team had to be brought in if the situation required the use of pepper spray.

Pepper spray was not deployed at all between January 2015 and the end of May. Since June 1, it has been used three times. Brandon has twice been the target.

'It's a definite punishment'

As an Albertan and a parent, Lori said she's offended by the correctional officers' use of pepper spray.

"We're talking about guards that are already in control of the person. I don't believe that is a deterrent. It is a definite punishment. It's not OK to be abusive."

Human Services Minister Irfan Sabir insists pepper spray is used "as a matter of last resort." 

"It's only used in rare circumstances to help avoid situations where greater use of force would be required," he said. "This is not meant to be a behavioural tool and should not be used as such."

Sabir said Justice Minister Kathleen Ganley will review the pepper spray policy at the six-month mark in December, to make sure the changes have achieved the desired results.

"If there are any changes as a result of that review," he said, "those decisions will certainly be made public."

Brandon's arm broken 

Lori recalled a phone call she received about her son in November 2014 from the Calgary Young Offender Centre.  

"I received a phone call mid-afternoon on a Saturday, saying there had been an altercation. Saying my son had to be restrained and he had been injured."  

Lori said they told her the need to restrain Brandon, who was then 15, was essential and she was assured he was OK. Late that Saturday night, her son called her in tears.

"He was restrained because he had refused to tuck his shirt in and had lipped off to the corrections officer. And the corrections officer pinned him to the ground, took his arm and put it behind his back and he had heard the bone snap in his arm."

Lori said her son spent the night in segregation with no medical attention. His broken arm wasn't set until the next afternoon.  

"If my son deserves to be restrained, then he deserves to be restrained. But at 15 years old he doesn't deserve to have his arm broken because a guard went just a little bit too far. I keep thinking if this is happening to my son, who else is it happening to?"

Lori said the correctional facility investigated, but did not reprimand the guard. After an investigation, Calgary police decided not to lay any criminal charges against the staff member, she said.

Brandon's mom is not calling for a ban on physical force when necessary, or on the use of pepper spray. But she does think staff need to be held accountable for their actions.

"They have to restrain inmates. I understand that. But restraining doesn't mean breaking an arm," she said.

"Whether it's breaking an arm, whether it's using pepper spray just because they have it and thought they should use it, they can't abuse their power. Because when they abuse their power, then they become no better than the youth that are in jail for the crimes that they committed."