Les Leyne: Skeleton staff still operating youth jail

Les Leyne mugshot genericThe Victoria Youth Custody Centre ran 70 per cent of the time through September and October with zero clients, but still has 10 staff on hand.

It’s a measure of how difficult it is to execute the bad idea of shutting it down. More than six months has passed since the plan to close the facility was announced, but the centre is still technically open and could remain open for some time yet. The Ministry of Children and Family Development said Monday a single unit at the facility will continue to operate until the government finds a viable option for the site.

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In the meantime, the staff members are acting for the most part as custodians of a mostly empty building. On Nov. 1, the shift level was reduced to one person on duty at all times. A second person is called in when a youth is scheduled to be held there. The building is staffed 24/7.

The ministry said the single staff member on duty during most shifts is in charge of basic tasks including administration duties, facility security and packing.

When clients are occasionally present at the building, they are housed in the short-term admission/discharge cells, because the former living units are no longer open. Part of the hangup on completing the total shutdown is believed to be Victoria police and the RCMP’s refusal to house under-age offenders in their short-term adult jail cells.

Children and Family Development Minister Stephanie Cadieux was vague right from the start on the timeline she intended to follow. Closure was announced April 28, but no firm date was given. Police immediately reacted negatively to the idea. Although the chief provincial court judge issued a directive that Victoria youths being held short-term were to be placed in police cells, Victoria police Chief Frank Elsner and others rejected it.

“The police department is adamant this is not an appropriate place to house young offenders,” he said.

The closure plan stemmed from a remarkable decline in youths in custody, from an average of 220 across B.C. in 2003, to about 74 today. The Victoria centre opened in 2002 with a capacity of 60, but the caseload started to dwindle. A girls’ wing was shut down in 2012 and the operation was curtailed to a capacity of 24 about the same time. The average caseload was about 15 last spring.

There were 64 staff at the centre and the majority have dispersed. A handful moved to the Vancouver Island Correctional Centre. Four joined a new community support team, dealing with juveniles who need help. They work entirely in the capital region, but report to a supervisor at the Burnaby Youth Custody Centre. That facility is now handling the Island’s youth-custody needs. The Victoria one doesn’t even exist on the government’s website, which lists Burnaby and Prince George as the only two youth centres.

Of the original complement, 10 employees are still in the workforce adjustment process. The ministry said that should be completed by the end of the year.

Some of the former staff took early retirement. Although the employees prided themselves on their expertise in working with troubled youth as a team, many of them transferred to other posts in government and are no longer working in that field.

Youth facing more than seven days in custody are now moved to Burnaby and those less than seven days are staying in Victoria. A five-person transport team was announced in July as part of the intensive support and supervision program. The team was to move youth after hours on weekends and holidays when sheriffs weren’t available, in order to minimize their time in police cells.

Rumours continue to bounce around about the future. Some suggest that police were offered additional funding if they would relax their stance against housing youth, but rejected it. B.C. Government and Service Employees’ Union corrections spokesman Dean Purdy said the union still advocates maintaining the facility as a place for adult offenders with mental-health issues. Last week, the Royal B.C. Museum said it was considering using some of the facility for exhibit storage.

lleyne@timescolonist.com

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