Violence at Burnaby youth jail raises questions on Island closing

A spike in violence at the Burnaby Youth Custody Centre is raising further questions about plans to transfer young offenders to the facility from Vancouver Island.

Youth-on-youth assaults at the Burnaby jail doubled in the past three years despite a decline in the average number of young people in custody, government statistics show.

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The Ministry of Children and Family Development reported 30 assaults in 2013-14 compared with 28 the previous year and 16 in 2011-12.

The average number of youths in the jail on any given night fell to 43 from 53 over the same period.

Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond, B.C.’s representative for children and youth, said the assaults underline doubts about the plan to close the Victoria Youth Custody Centre and send youth to Burnaby.

The move will save about $4.5 million annually.

“One of the reasons I thought this was a bad decision was the fact that Burnaby is already struggling with critical incidents of young people assaulting each other,” she said.

The “pooling” of troubled youth in one location runs the risk of exposing vulnerable youngsters to more experienced criminals and gang members, she said.

“Burnaby is, for the most part, a safe place, but the mixing of people for economic expediency or convenience is a concern, particularly where we’re seeing more aggressive behaviour in that facility.”

The B.C. Government and Service Employees’ Union, which represents correctional officers, reports that youth assaults on staff are also on the rise at the Burnaby jail.

Short- and long-term disability claims due to acts of violence jumped to 14 at the facility last year from nine in 2012, WorkSafe B.C. statistics show.

“That jail, because of the size of it, becomes more of a breeding ground or recruiting ground for that type of activity — gang and crime,” said union spokesman Dean Purdy.

He said plans to cut seven staff and add more youth from Victoria will make matters worse.

“By increasing the number of kids at the Burnaby Youth Custody Centre, we’re going to see a further increase of not only youth-on-youth violence, but the youth [assaults] on our staff,” he said.

The province downplayed the rise in assaults at Burnaby. It said the numbers are so small that “one or two high-risk youth with significant mental-health issues can cause large increases in incidents.”

Children’s Minister Stephanie Cadieux said the issue will not affect plans to close the Victoria jail. “That really doesn’t factor into the equation here, because it is something that goes up and comes down dependent on the youth that are in custody at any particular time.”

She said the decision to close the Victoria jail stems from the declining number of youth in custody.

The facility, built for 60, has been staffed for a maximum of 24 youth and currently houses an average of 15 a night.

“When we have adequate numbers in a facility ... it actually allows us to continue to provide that programming that we wouldn’t be able to do with continuing declining numbers,” she said.

NDP children’s critic Carole James, however, said it makes little sense to cut staff and transfer more youth into a facility already dealing with a rise in violence.

“You’re just asking for trouble,” she said.

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