New Brunswick

Ombudsman calls for closure of youth detention centre

Provincial ombudsman Bernard Richard is calling for the closure of the New Brunswick Youth Centre in Miramichi.

Provincial ombudsman Bernard Richard is calling for the closure of the New Brunswick Youth Centre in Miramichi.

The centre should be transformed into an adult jail and those currently detained at the institution should be transferred to a more suitable location, said Richard, who is also the province's child and youth advocate.

Richard cites the jail's lack of mental health facilities for youth, overcrowding and its history of also detaining adults as reasons it should be closed.

The call comes a month after Ashley Smith, 19, died of self-initiated asphyxiation in her prison cell at the Grand Valley Institution for Women in Kitchener, Ont.

A former Moncton resident, Smith was serving a six-year sentence for a range of offences, including assault with a weapon and assaulting a peace officer. She had spent most of her time in prison at the New Brunswick youth detention centre.

Richard is conducting an investigation into Smith's death and her time in the province's justice system. He is also looking at the availability of mental health services for inmates.

Correctional Service Canada, local police and the federal prison ombudsman are also conducting investigations into Smith's death.

Richard said his investigation is still in its early stages, but it's been determined that Smith was sent to the youth centre when she was 15 and two-thirds of her time in Miramichi had been spent in isolation.

Locked away in a small cell and often penalized with solitary confinement, Smith accumulated approximately 50 institutional charges.

"I dare any one of us to spend that kind of time — two or three years — in that kind of facility, and I'd be willing to bet that we'd have our rough days as well," Richard said.

Smith transferred around Canada

Smith was transferred to an adult prison in Saint John when she was 18, said Richard. She was then put into the federal system and was sent to Truro, N.S., and Saskatchewan before she ended up at Grand Valley.

Four guards have been charged with criminal negligence in connection with her death. They are scheduled to appear in court in December.

Four others have been suspended without pay and the warden and deputy warden have been transferred to different positions since Smith's death.

Smith's case is an extreme example, Richard said, but he has already encountered several other troubled youths who have faced similar treatment in the system.

"We need to do a better job, and that's been known long before Ashley's death," he said.

Locking up young people who are dealing with mental health problems doesn't help anyone, Richard said, and putting Smith in solitary confinement was a mistake.

Prison no place for treatment

There needs to be a facility that provides appropriate treatment for youth suffering from severe behaviour misconduct and mental illness, he said.

"A prison is not a place to provide treatment."

Richard is currently finishing a report, scheduled for release in January, which addresses the treatment of troubled teens in the province and highlights the need for major reforms.

The Department of Public Safety is in the early stages of replacing a jail in Moncton, and Richard said the government should use the funding for that institution to create a therapeutic facility for youth battling mental illnesses.

Michael Boudreau, a criminology professor at St. Thomas University in New Brunswick, said Richard's demand to create a special institution for youth will likely be well supported.

People suffering with mental illnesses, such as schizophrenia, cannot be treated simply as another offender, Boudreau said.

"It highlights New Brunswick's failure to adequately deal with offenders, especially youth at risk who suffer from debilitating diseases that may indeed have had an impact on their criminal activity," Boudreau said. "In that sense the province desperately needs to do more to help their situation."

With files from the Canadian Press