A corrections officer and a young offender suffered minor injuries during a prisoner exchange at Victoria International Airport.
The Ministry of Children and Family Development is downplaying the incident, portraying it as a scuffle in which the youth began “acting up” and had to be restrained.
The union representing corrections officers called the May 19 incident an “assault” and linked it to the partial shutdown of the Victoria Youth Custody Centre.
“This flows directly out of that closure,” said Dean Purdy, spokesman for the B.C. Government and Service Employees’ Union. “I firmly believe that some of the current conditions that those youth are subjected to at the centre may play a part in it as well.”
The ministry announced in April 2014 that it was closing the jail, saying it could no longer afford to house an average of 15 youths a night in a facility built for 60 and staffed for a maximum of 24.
Shuttering the jail was expected to offset a corresponding loss of $4.5 million in federal money.
Vancouver Island police leaders, however, balked at holding youth in their lock-ups, so the ministry has been forced to operate the jail with a skeleton staff.
The majority of youth stay less than 24 hours before being transferred to the Burnaby Youth Custody Centre. They are then flown back to the Island for court appearances.
In the incident last week, a youth became verbally abusive while being transferred to a plane at the Victoria airport, the ministry said in a written response to questions from the Times Colonist.
“At one point a staff member was attempting to adjust the handcuffs the youth was wearing when the youth raised his hands in an aggressive manner towards the staff member.”
The youth was restrained and, “in the process of moving the resisting youth to the ground, the youth and one staff member received abrasions.”
The ministry said the youth eventually calmed down and boarded the plane under escort.
Purdy, however, said the youth attempted to attack an officer and then, “while restraining the youth in an attempt to gain compliance, the officer was assaulted.”
As a matter of routine, the officer was treated at hospital for possible exposure to blood or bodily fluids, Purdy said.
He tied the incident to the stress on youth offenders being kept in isolated holding cells at the Victoria jail and shuffled between the Island and the Lower Mainland.
“For an adult, a daylong transfer from a custody centre to court or another custody centre via the plane … is a pretty big ordeal,” he said. “For a youth in custody, I could imagine it takes even more of a toll on them. It’s no surprise that this happens.”
Ministry staff confirmed that both the B.C. Sheriff Services and ministry officers have seen an increase in the number of transfers since the jail’s closure. Staff from the ministry have assisted with the transfer of 25 youth between Victoria and Burnaby since Sept. 1, 2014.
Stephanie Cadieux, minister of children and family development, said she has no “immediate concerns” about the airport incident.
“The reality is that we are dealing with some of British Columbia’s most challenged youth in our facilities,” she said. “And whether we’re dealing with them during a transport or whether it is in the facilities themselves, these risks of outbursts or activities happen.
“And our staff are well trained to deal with them. That is a part of their job as corrections officers.”
The ministry said a risk assessment is done prior to transport to determine the level of staff supervision and restraint required.