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Alberta Is Shipping Calgary’s Young Offenders Out of the City and Away From Their Families

"Kids are just going to fight to stay alive. They'll be hustling each other for meal trays."
April 10, 2015, 7:00pm

A workshop for troubled youth held at CYOC. Photo via Flickr user Alberta Justice and Solicitor General

"You might want to wash your hands," the teen says apologetically after introducing himself with a handshake. "I was just cutting hot peppers."

The brown-eyed, black-haired boy has come straight from a cooking class. He speaks fervently yet eloquently, at one point pausing to emphasize that he means affective with an "a," not effective with an "e." If it wasn't for his all-blue uniform of sweatpants and t-shirt, he could very well be sitting across a table in a high school lunch room.

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Instead, he's seated in a trapped-in-the-'90s meeting room at the Calgary Young Offender Centre (CYOC), a facility that houses about 75 inmates located just a few minutes drive from the city's northwest suburban strip malls. It's also a facility that will be shut down by mid-summer. All inmates will be transferred to an Edmonton facility. This recently learned fact is one that the teen and other inmates are "very, very scared about."

"No one has any solid information," he says. "It's the scariest thing."

The youth's been in and out of the CYOC since he was 13. He came in with a cocky attitude, convinced that he was going to grow up to be "a gangster and a killer." But he adjusted. Over time, he participated in programs, seeking inspiration from counsellors, support workers, and probation officers. ("I look to her as a mother," he says about his most recent PO, also dubbing his counsellor "Mr. Superman.") As a result, he thinks the decision to close the facility in late July makes very little sense—that it has undergone far less consideration than what it would take, for instance, to build a new playground in a suburban neighbourhood.

"It's not logical," he says. "I'm really frustrated about this. I want to see the government at least pause, to consult, to talk to staff, to assess all the risk factors. That's what they should have done in the first place."

He's not the only one who thinks that. Harpreet Aulakh, justice studies professor at Mount Royal University, calls the decision "a big setback to our youth justice system." The executive director of the Calgary John Howard Society, Gordon Sands, suggests that "the ramifications for Calgary youth are tremendous." John Reilly—former provincial judge and author of Bad Medicine: A Judge's Struggle for Justice in a First Nations Community—predicts that "a lot of young people who need help are going to get a lot less because of the change."

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But a massive deficit caused by the collapse in oil prices needs to be plugged. So rather than increasing corporate taxes, or tweaking non-renewable resource royalties, or instituting a meaningful progressive income tax, the reigning Progressive Conservative party (which just called a $28-million election a full year before it was required) decided to call it quits on of housing Calgary's young offenders in their own community. While, a spokesperson for the Ministry of Justice couldn't say how much the province would save, the ministry's budget suggests that the total costs for all the young offenders centres in the province come to just over $22 million to run per year.

"The PCs say they're going to look out for vulnerable people," says Greg Clark, leader of the Alberta Party and candidate for Calgary-Elbow. "You get less crime by preventing young people from becoming career criminals. And you do that by having appropriate rehabilitation programs close to home so they can stay connected with families and communities. The evidence on that is absolutely clear."

Clark's right: the evidence is certainly in. Crime rates courtesy of young offenders have been on the decline for a decade and a half. Only a small majority—namely the serious and chronic offendersgot jail time. Such youth tend to be from vulnerable backgrounds—often varying combinations of mental illness, addictions, poverty, and aboriginal heritage. Now, a decision made blisteringly fast (according to the young offender I spoke with, staff found out the news on the same day as him) will potentially result in overcrowding, added violence, and less family visitation.

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"All the progress that's been made isn't worth anything now," the inmate says. "There'll be a lot of fights and gang mentality: it doesn't promote positivity or change. Kids are just going to fight to stay alive. They'll be hustling each other for meal trays."

Currently, 18 boys occupy 16 rooms in the unit where he resides. The four inmates who share cells were screened for compatibility, he explains, so there wouldn't be any issues. That'll all be thrown out the barred window when the 70-or-so youth are transferred to the Edmonton facility. According to him, the possibility of riots, fights, and the formation of gangs will only increase. There's the concern of less access to programming, such as the cooking class, due to increased demand and budget constraints.

"It definitely impedes young people's opportunities to participate in any type of academic or vocational training," says Aulakh of Mount Royal University. "There's also no opportunity for self-reflection because you're always in constant interactions with someone else."

Volunteer organizations have been working in the CYOC for decades. Take the Girl Guides program: established in 1999, the mandatory weekly event teaches the dozen-and-a-half female inmates everything from cooking, to gardening, to first aid. It's an initiative fully funded by the Calgary chapter of Soroptimist International, costing the government nothing. That initiative, as well as a plethora of other volunteer-led programs, will no longer be possible with the move to Edmonton.

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A spokesperson for the CYOC Girl Guides program forwarded on comments written by the female inmates about the loss of the program. "It has helped me to get close to others," one wrote. Another suggested that the facilitators "show the true meaning of love." Yet another wrote that the end of the program "would make it harder for us to connect and make new friends as well as learn new skills necessary of outside living."

Transitioning back into "outside living" will be made even more difficult due to the inevitable decline in family visitations, an interaction proven to reduce recidivism rates. It's approximately a 600-km round trip from Calgary to Edmonton, a journey that for many will require additional gas money, babysitting, and maybe even hotel costs. The young offender at CYOC I spoke with explains that family counselling is a big factor for rehabilitation among fellow inmates (something confirmed in a 2002 study), and that driving six hours for a two-hour visit may not be worth it for families with other pressures on their mind.

Reilly, the former judge, agrees: "The poor people always get the worst of it. When I was sitting in Cochrane, one of the biggest reasons for non-attendance by Aboriginal people was because they couldn't get transportation from their hometown on the reserve to Cochrane for court. Now we're talking about people who are going to have to travel another three hours than what it took them to get to the CYOC to visit their family."

The move potentially serves as contravention of a number of pieces of legislation, including the UN's "Beijing Rules" (1985) and Convention on the Rights of a Child (1990), in addition to the Canadian Youth Criminal Justice Act (2002), which all require the direct involvement of the family and community for the purposes of rehabilitation. But a government that is "balancing the budget on the backs of vulnerable kids," as Aulakh puts it, might not take the time to review such commitments.

Sands of the John Howard Society says that he understands the need for cost-cutting, but doesn't think that the closure of the CYOC is the correct way to go about that given the potential "downstream effects"—increased gang activity, less access to programs, fewer visits from family. All reducing the immediate fiscal responsibilities, sure, but by no means dealing with the underlying problems that could cost enormously ("what happens when four guys stomp another kid and he's breathing through tubes?," the teen at the CYOC asks). The youth fears especially for the younger kids, those who are still dealing with addictions and family issues, and aren't prepared for the sudden shift.

"We're destroying their lives," he says. "They don't need this on top of everything, to be cut off from their families.The government's reversing the progress they've made. They need to look at the potential impacts on communities. When kids get released, they're not going to have any money, will end up homeless and steal a car. I've been there."

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