Youth’s escape at airport raises questions about closing jail

A young offender briefly escaped from custody at Victoria International Airport on Wednesday night, prompting further questions about the decision to partially close the Victoria Youth Custody Centre last year.

The Ministry of Children and Family Development confirmed Thursday that the escape happened while a male youth was being moved from the Victoria courthouse to the airport for eventual transfer to the Burnaby Youth Custody Centre.

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The ministry said that its youth custody officers generally transport youth in a “secure” vehicle that prevents offenders from opening the doors.

However, due to a change in procedure at the airport, the ministry’s vehicles are no longer permitted on the tarmac.

As a result, the youth was transferred at the airport to a less-secure commissionaire’s vehicle to be driven across the tarmac to the plane, the ministry said.

“While the airport commissionaire’s vehicle — with the youth and two staff inside — waited for the access gate to the tarmac to open, the youth opened the rear door and jumped out,” the ministry said in a statement.

The youth, who was considered “low-risk,” wore handcuffs, but no leg shackles.

“We do not shackle youth unnecessarily,” the ministry statement said. “The youth’s demeanour, activity and attitude prior to the incident had not been an issue.”

The ministry said its staff members never lost sight of the youth and apprehended him within 15 minutes. Police were contacted immediately, but officers arrived after the youth was already back in custody.

To avoid further issues on the plane, the ministry changed its plans and staff took the youth to the Lower Mainland on B.C. Ferries. He arrived at the Burnaby Youth Custody Centre on Wednesday night without further incident.

The ministry said the airport has agreed to change its policy and allow the ministry’s secure vehicles back on the tarmac, under escort by the airport commissionaires in their vehicle.

The escape follows an incident in May in which an officer and a young offender suffered minor injuries during a prisoner exchange at the airport.

At the time, the ministry downplayed 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 youth custody centre.

Dean Purdy, a spokesman for the B.C. Government and Service Employees’ Union, said Thursday that the latest incident highlights ongoing issues with the closing of the custody centre.

“Any time you’re moving kids back and forth from Victoria to Burnaby on a regular basis, it’s going to open up a window of opportunity for kids to try and escape,” he said.

“Here’s a perfect example of it. This is about protecting public safety and it’s concerning for us. We think there was a mistake made when they closed the Victoria custody centre. We still think that.”

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 centre. They are then flown back to the Island for court appearances.

The ministry said Thursday the centre has been empty “nearly 80 per cent of the time” since April 1. Two regular employees and three auxiliary employees remain available as needed to look after youth at the facility.

lkines@timescolonist.com

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