The union representing correctional officers has accused the B.C. government of making misleading statements about the Victoria Youth Custody Centre.
The government announced the closing of the youth jail last week, saying it could no longer afford to house an average of 15 youth a night in the 60-bed facility.
It expects to save about $4.5 million a year by shuttering the jail and moving young offenders to the two remaining youth custody centres in Burnaby and Prince George.
But the B.C. Government and Service Employees’ Union said the government’s numbers paint an inaccurate picture. They say the youth jail has a budget and staff to house a maximum of 24 youth, not 60.
As of Friday, there were 17 in the facility, said BCGEU spokesman Dean Purdy.
“So they’re running approximately 70 to 75 per cent of capacity, not 15, 20 or 25 per cent that the government has been saying.”
Purdy said the budget was reduced and staffing established for a maximum of 24 offenders after the government closed the girls’ unit in 2012. “They’ve been running counts of anywhere between 10 and 20,” he said.
The Ministry of Children and Family Development confirmed the 24-youth maximum, but said it’s still under-used. “So far this year the average is 11 [youth] which is 46 per cent capacity,” the ministry said in a statement.
Children’s Minister Stephanie Cadieux faced a barrage of questions on the issue in the legislature Monday from Island NDP MLAs Carole James and Maurine Karagianis.
Cadieux said youth custody rates have dropped 65 per cent in the past decade and that the province’s three jails in Victoria, Burnaby and Prince George are operating at less than 56 per cent capacity. She said it would be irresponsible to keep “over-resourced facilities” like Victoria’s jail open and that young offenders will get better services in Burnaby.
Fewer young people are being jailed “because of our outstanding restorative justice programs and alternatives to custody programs,” she said.
“It is not in the best interests of youth to have them in facilities where there are not enough youth that we can continue to provide the important programming like education, vocational services, substance abuse, aboriginal liaisons, and such, with such declining numbers,” she said.
Union officials, however, say Cadieux is misleading the public on that point. “The programming that they have at the Victoria Youth Custody Centre is no different than what’s offered in Burnaby,” Purdy said.
“The youth in this facility are receiving educational counselling, vocational supports,” said James, who met with staff at the facility on Friday. “They have their family and friends close by, and the minister’s solution is to send them off to Burnaby?”
Representative for children and youth Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond questions why the ministry hasn’t looked at other options. “It’s a good facility; it’s a valuable facility. So if the numbers decline, why are we not re-purposing that facility for urgently, urgently needed residential services that I’ve reported on?” She noted, for instance, that young people certified under the Mental Health Act often have no suitable place to stay on Vancouver Island and, in some cases, are admitted to adult hospital wards.
Both Purdy and Turpel-Lafond said the jail is ideal for re-purposing as it has separate wings or units that could be converted to provide mental-health beds.