Les Leyne: Former inmates praise custody centre

Les Leyne mugshot genericBy now, anyone with even a remote interest in the future of the Victoria Youth Custody Services Centre has weighed in on the dismaying decision to shut it down.

The one group that hasn’t been heard from is the young offenders who have actually spent some time there.

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Former staff member Gloria Quarless worked 30 years in the field before retiring, but still volunteers there. She solicited views and collected some written thoughts from some of her former charges.

Their memories seem to corroborate one of the themes that came out of a community meeting Tuesday night sponsored by the B.C. Government and Service Employees Union to discuss the upcoming closure. It’s that the centre is going well beyond most people’s expectations of the place. Staff and volunteers are doing much more than just incarcerating juvenile offenders.

Victoria lawyer Richard Schwartz, who specializes in youth justice, remarked on advice he got from a probation officer early in his career. It was simply that the only thing that counts in rehabilitation is a young offender making a personal connection with an adult role model who cares. That connection is being made daily at the centre.

The first question Schwartz always asks his clients is: “How are they treating you there?” He said the answer is invariably positive.

One of the several false notes that’s been struck by the government is that the decline in the custody rate meant programming was slipping, so youth will be better served at the Burnaby facility, where most Island offenders will soon be sent.

There may be fewer programs now than when the facility was near capacity, but the services offered are considered to be effective and meaningful. There’s a more or less standard school day. There are First Nations teachings, a pastor is on hand and a gym with yoga classes is available. After school, assorted programs are offered.

The idea that the Burnaby facility — which has a reputation for gangs and violence — is somehow better leaves people in the field, including former inmates, shaking their heads.

Here are some thoughts — anonymous for obvious reasons — from people who did time at the centre:

• “Hey, I know going to juvie when I was younger brought me discipline and gave me patience. And the kids in Burnaby jail are way worse … . And sometimes they don’t like kids from the Island.”

• “I have been thinking of all the stories I have about how being in VYCC helped me be the woman I am today … Each staff member has their own story of how being there changed my entire life.”• “My experience with my son being there made it a lot easier on me … . I do believe if you have good family or friends that it is best to have them close by … .

“Me and my family were very thankful for the two years we got to visit our son there.”

• “The one thing I always remember is that they never gave up on me; they always pushed me to be a better person and every time I got released to go to treatment, they had nothing but kind words and they never thought of me as a lost cause, which was pretty awesome.”

• “If the staff and volunteers do anything different than other centres, it’s taking the things we all say we’re going to do differently and helping show us how to put those into action …

“Prior to my few visits there, I was a complete a------ kid with no regard for anyone. I may not be the best guy and I am guilty of a lot of sins, but I truly believe I carry that part of my life wherever I go, and God bless that I was able to be a part of the jail.”

• “At one point we had 10 kids on the unit holding hands in prayer before bed. Some guards would tear up seeing that a unit of dysfunctional kids could come together and learn from such a ‘bad’ place.”

It’s more than a “jail.” It’s the nexus for a network of supports for troubled youth that, by most accounts, is working well. It will be a long-lasting shame when it’s abandoned.

lleyne@timescolonist.com

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