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B.C. government hid fate of youth jail, documents show

The Victoria Youth Custody Centre has been empty “nearly 80 per cent of the time” since April 1, the Ministry of Children and Family Development says.

B.C.’s minister of children and family development told the legislature in March that there were no plans to close any youth jails, even though she knew officials had been preparing for months to shutter the Victoria Youth Custody Centre, documents show.

Stephanie Cadieux told the NDP’s Carole James on March 24 that “at this point, we have no plan in place to make any significant changes because we’re still looking at what our options are to maintain the best service for the youth that we do have in custody.”

Newly released documents, however, suggest Cadieux was briefed on a plan at least four months earlier. One document seeks her approval for “announcements on December 4, 2013, to close Victoria Youth Custody Services.”

The announcement, which was apparently delayed several months in order to obtain cabinet approval, was made April 28.

The documents also show that, on Nov. 20, 2013, Cadieux’s deputy approved the form letters that would be sent to union and other employees “should a decision be made to close a youth custody facility.”

Another briefing note from November talks about the “planned closure of Victoria Youth Custody Services” and states that the closing “is expected to be completed by April 2014.”

The B.C. Government and Service Employees’ Union, which obtained the heavily censored documents using B.C.’s freedom of information law, expressed disappointment with the government’s tactics.

“On Nov. 26, during contract negotiations for all direct government employees, we asked the government if there were any plans to close the Victoria Youth Custody Centre and they said no,” said union spokesman Dean Purdy.

“In January 2014, we again asked the question: Are you closing the Victoria Youth Custody Centre at this time? They said no again.”

The documents suggest the government had decided the jail’s fate by November 2013, if not earlier, Purdy said.

“Doing business this way is very concerning for us, as the answers we received were not correct,” he said. “It appears their decision was made a long time ago without any consultation with stakeholders, community, police, First Nations and the union.”

James said the documents also raise serious questions about Cadieux’s statements in the legislature.

“For her to say that they had no plan in place and that they were still looking at their options, clearly appears not to be true from the documents,” said James, MLA for Victoria-Beacon Hill.

She said the latest revelations will be especially frustrating for correctional officers and community members who were denied a chance to meet with the ministry to discuss other options for the jail.

“The fact that the government was looking at this in the fall would have given time for those conversations to take place,” James said.

Cadieux was unavailable to comment on Friday. Her ministry issued a statement saying that officials were merely exploring options — including alternatives to closing the jail — last fall and winter.

The ministry added that the briefing notes are standard practice.

“It is well within a deputy minister’s mandate to explore options before submitting a formal proposal to cabinet for approval. As the documents show, the proposal to cabinet didn’t go forward until the spring and no official plan was developed until after cabinet had signed off.”

The ministry said it would have been “irresponsible and premature” to publicly discuss closing the jail before the government had considered its options.

Cadieux has said the closing stems from the declining number of youth in custody. The jail, which was built for 60 and staffed for 24, housed an average of 15 youth last year. She said the closing will save about $4.5 million and offset a corresponding loss of federal money.

A final closing date has yet to be announced, but the ministry began transferring youth to Burnaby and Prince George jails this month.