Child advocate calls for changes to use of pepper spray, segregation in Alberta young offender centres

Alberta Child and Youth Advocate Del Graff. Codie McLachlan, The Canadian Press.

Alberta’s child advocate wants the province to decrease the use of segregation and pepper spray in young offender centres.

Del Graff says in a report released Monday that Alberta needs to update its policies to fall in line with other provinces that limit the segregation of young inmates, while providing them with better supports.

He also recommends that pepper spray, or OC spray, only be used in exceptional circumstances. Alberta is one of four provinces that allows the use of pepper spray in its young offender facilities, he added.

“The treatment of young people in custody should uphold their human rights,” Graff wrote in the report.

Alberta’s two young offender centres — one in Edmonton and one in Calgary — house an average of 90 young people a day.

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Justice officials argue that segregation and pepper spray are used to keep staff and youth in custody safe.

Graff says both options can have negative results.

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Prolonged periods of isolation, either alone in a cell or being moved to a separate unit, can affect mental health, he says. Some youth interviewed for the report talked about being segregated for days or weeks at a time, while one had been in segregation for five months.

“Most of the young people explained that their minds wandered and they felt angry, frustrated, depressed and had thoughts of suicide and self-harm. They felt like they were going crazy.”

Justice officials were not immediately available for comment.

In Canada, proposed changes to federal law would create better protections for adults segregated in prisons, but not youth, says the report.

Alberta policy currently states that segregation used for punishment in youth centres cannot exceed 72 hours, but there is no time limit on segregation used to ensure safety of staff or inmates, the report says. It also references a 2018 provincial court ruling that segregation in young offender centres is happening without legal authority.

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“It is alarming that segregation occurs in Alberta’s young offender centres without legislation to provide guidance and ensure accountability, transparency, and fairness.”

Graff says Alberta needs to follow other provinces, such as Ontario, which limit segregation of youth to no more than 24 hours a week and to no more than eight hours over two days for those under 16.

When it comes to pepper spray, Alberta changed a policy in 2016 making it easier for correctional officers to use the spray in young offender centres, Graff says.

At the time, the government said the policy would be reviewed after six months and any changes would be made public, but Graff says he’s not aware of any updates.

Use of the spray has steadily increased in the facilities since 2016, says the report. In the four years prior, there was one recorded incident. In the three years since, there have been 60.

A report earlier this year from Manitoba’s child advocate, who called for similar changes, provided numbers that showed that Alberta had the highest rate of pepper spray use in young offender centres in 2017.

Youth interviewed for Graff’s report spoke about spray burning their face and eyes. Some had trouble breathing even if they were not directly sprayed.

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The report says long-term effects of the spray on young people are not well understood and some researchers caution its use on mentally ill youth may intensify their anger and trauma.

“If OC spray is to be used in young offender centres, it should only be used as a last resort.”

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