The B.C. government faces renewed calls to save the Victoria youth jail and convert part of it into a women’s remand centre.
West Coast LEAF, a women’s legal advocacy group, states in a letter to Minister of Children and Family Development Stephanie Cadieux that closing the jail will result in youth spending time in police cells.
Once there, they will be exposed to hardened offenders and potentially violent behaviour, the letter says.
“This is in contravention of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child and the principle that decisions regarding youth should be made based on the best interests of the child,” writes Laura Track, legal director.
She argues that the government should keep the centre, convert unused sections into a remand facility for women and re-open the girls’ unit that closed in 2012.
“Currently, detained women in Victoria are being held in atrocious conditions in police cells, sometimes for days at a time, without showers, medical care or even the ability to brush their teeth,” the letter states.
“Women’s equality rights, as well as their rights to security, dignity and freedom from cruel and degrading treatment or punishment, are being violated by the lack of appropriate facilities on Vancouver Island.”
Provincial court judges have characterized the lack of a correctional or remand facility for women on Vancouver Island as shameful, unacceptable, discriminatory and profoundly unfair.
Cadieux announced last month that the government plans to close the youth jail and hold offenders in the two remaining custody centres in Burnaby and Prince George.
She said the government can no longer afford to keep the youth jail open to house an average of 15 boys a night.
The facility was built for 60, but has been budgeted to hold a maximum of 24.
The move will save the province about $4.5 million a year.
The plan has been widely criticized by police, lawyers and municipal politicians, as well as by representative for children and youth Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond and provincial health officer Dr. Perry Kendall.
Turpel-Lafond said the building could provide desperately needed beds for children with mental health or behavioural issues.
Victoria-based architect Tony James, whose company designed the jail, said it was built in pods, which makes it “readily adaptable” for other uses.
“Closing it, it seems to me, is like throwing out the baby with the bath water,” he said Friday.
“It doesn’t seem very intelligent to me, especially when you hear about issues . . . of how you provide support to children in difficulties by shipping them miles away from their family and other community support.”
The government has rejected repeated calls to keep the jail open.
Justice Minister Suzanne Anton says it would be “prohibitively expensive” to establish a separate remand facility for women in Victoria.
“The number of women prisoners is very low on Vancouver Island, which is a good thing, and it’s simply not practical to operate a facility for so few people,” she said.
“You can’t run good programming, you can’t run good rehabilitation programs, you can’t do the kinds of things that prisoners need and that we want to give to them if you have very few people in a facility.”
NDP justice critic Leonard Krog said the government continues to show “callous disregard” for women who come into contact with the law.
“Why would you deny the people on Vancouver Island the same rights that are given to other British Columbians?” he said. “The fact is, it is on the face of it just blatant discrimination and poor public policy.”
In 2012, Victoria police billed the province for holding 245 provincial women prisoners in their cells.
The statistic does not represent individuals because many have repeat court appearances.
Ministry of Justice statistics say the average stay for a female inmate in the Victoria police lockup is 20 hours.