Last year saw tenfold jump in youth held in prolonged solitary confinement, Manitoba advocate says

Following a spike in youth placed in solitary confinement last year because of pandemic protocols, the Manitoba Advocate for Children and Youth is reiterating changes it called for two years ago that haven't yet been implemented.

Latest Manitoba Advocate for Children and Youth report reiterates need for changes highlighted 2 years ago

A solitary confinement cell is pictured at the Agassiz Youth Centre. That site and the Manitoba Youth Centre are the province's two youth custody facilities. (Submitted by Manitoba Justice)

Instances of incarcerated youth being held in solitary confinement for more than 15 straight days increased tenfold from 2019 to 2020, largely because of COVID-19 protocols that require 14 days of isolation upon entry, Manitoba's youth advocate says.

While it was intended to be a public health measure, youth in those facilities reported having limited, inconsistent access to educational, mental health and cultural supports while segregated, acting Manitoba advocate for children and youth Ainsley Krone said in her report on Friday.

The average length of time youth spent in segregation also skyrocketed to an "unprecedented" 132 hours — or 5½ days — in 2020 after dropping to 25 hours in 2019, Krone's report said.

That initial progress, and the fact that it was walked back just a year later, shows exactly why changes are still needed, Krone said during a news conference on Zoom Friday morning.

"The reversal in 2020 of improvements that we saw in 2019 demonstrate[s] that rights are not secure unless they are embedded in the law," she said.

Research shows segregating youth for an extended period of time, no matter the reason, is harmful and may have lasting impacts on their mental health, the report said.

"As one youth we interviewed made clear: 'The way they do it, they're not helping us,'" it said.

The report, called Breaking the Cycle: An Update on the Use of Segregation and Solitary Confinement in Manitoba Youth Custody Facilities, reiterated a need for changes the advocate already called for in another report two years ago.

Youth solitary confinement for longer than 24 hours needs to be outlawed in Manitoba and restricted for vulnerable populations, including youth with cognitive disabilities and mental illness, Krone said.

She also called again for enhanced culturally safe therapeutic and mental health support and for the creation of mental health facilities led and run by mental health professionals for youth in custody.

Krone said she was "encouraged" by recent conversations with Manitoba Justice on the topic.

She said changes to the youth custody system will need collaboration across departments, including with the Department of Health and Seniors Care and the more recently established Department of Mental Health, Wellness and Recovery.

Breaking the cycle

The report outlined a cycle of trauma for incarcerated youth in segregation, tracing a line from early or generational trauma to mental health issues to involvement in the criminal justice system. 

At that point, putting youth into segregation only compounds their trauma — but the cycle can break if those youth are instead given mental health and community reintegration supports, the report says.

It highlighted the story of a First Nations boy who was segregated several times while in custody — during which time he was denied regular access to an elder and other supports because they were considered privileges.

Ainsley Krone is the acting Manitoba advocate for children and youth. Her latest report highlights changes needed in the province's youth custody system when it comes to solitary confinement. (Gary Solilak/CBC)

"I had never spoken to an elder before. I learned how to sing, stuff like that. He used to give me help. I found myself that way. And I didn't want to lose that. But it was taken away," the boy said in the report.

Another boy in the report had been involved with the justice system since age 12 and carried childhood trauma stemming from the death of one parent, the illness of another and violence at home.

He was placed in segregation six times during a single year in custody — for a total of 1,699 hours, or roughly 71 days.

That time in segregation was linked to incidents including self-harm, planned assaults on other youth, bullying and "gang-driven" behaviour, the report said.

A 12-year-old boy in the report was held in isolation at the Winnipeg Remand Centre — an adult facility — for nine days last April after being arrested. He was from northern Manitoba and in the care of Child and Family Services.

That boy was later transferred to the Manitoba Youth Centre and connected with the children's advocate in part because he had questions about the justice system and his shoes were "held together by tape," the report said.

Those types of stories highlight the need for changes in what's allowed when it comes to putting youth in solitary confinement — and what types of supports are still needed for so many living with unresolved trauma, Krone said.

"Changing the way we think about youth in custody is necessary and possible," she said.

"Reframing youth behaviour in the context of childhood trauma might hold the key to reducing segregation and improving conditions and outcomes for youth and staff alike."