A six-hour riot that started with a fire and devolved into a rampage through a youth "super jail" in British Columbia this week has confirmed long-held fears over what would happen when the province closed down other prisons and consolidated the inmates — some from rival gangs — into one place.
It was Tuesday evening when a group of teen boys gathered together inside the youth jail in Burnaby and lit a fire by heating up a piece of paper in the toaster.
The mayhem escalated quickly from there, with the kids, who used masks to hide their identities from the security cameras, smashing windows and furniture, fashioning weapons out of table legs, and barricading doors. They destroyed the microwaves and dishwasher, and broke the sprinklers.
After they ruined one room and started a flood, they rammed their way into another and continued their rampage. By 2:30 am, officers with the federal police force and 19 firefighters had arrived and the situation was contained. Somehow no one was seriously injured, although there was immense damage to the facility.
An outbreak of violence of this kind in prisons is rare in Canada, and even less so in youth jails. But correctional workers and youth advocates have, for years, warned that something like this would happen in Burnaby as the BC provincial government closed down the youth jail in the capital of Victoria and started pooling inmates from all over the province to save money. Inevitably, rival gang members came under one roof. This new "super-jail" has become a hotbed for violence and acts of aggression.
Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond, BC's representative for children and youth, told VICE News she has been calling on the province to immediately reopen other youth jails to ease tensions at the Burnaby Youth Custody Center. It's believed that the group of young men involved in the riots were associated with the rival gangs from Surrey and Prince George, but further details haven't been made public. Turpel-Lafond says the incident has all the hallmarks of gang-related violence.
"My eye will be strongly fixed on what's going on with the young people and whether this is a pattern, and what's going to be done to prevent this from happening again," she said.
The Burnaby jail was already grappling with rampant violence. Over the last five years, assaults among the young inmates has doubled, even though fewer people were being held there. Last November, a teen in the jail launched a lawsuit against the province alleging that he was kept in solitary confinement, and accuses the guards of negligence and false imprisonment.
Turpel-Lafond added that, before the other jails were shuttered, it was possible to send young offenders to facilities where they would least likely experience violence. This is of great concern when many of the inmates are affiliated with one of the province's gangs.
"If we knew a young person or their parent ran a street-level gang here, or if they were going to be a target by virtue of who they were, care was taken to decide on where they should be located. Now, we don't have those options," she said.
Dean Purdy, the head of correctional and sheriff services for the BC Government Employees Union, said in an interview that there has also been a spike in violence against the guards who work there. Right before the riot broke out, he says the staff there could sense something was about to happen, so they hid in the secure office.
"There have been several assaults on correctional officers over the last few months, and all the anecdotal info from our staff is that tensions are very high inside. It's getting very difficult to manage the inmates," Purdy said. "And there's very little repercussions when inmates exhibit poor behavior."
Staff Sergeant Lindsey Houghton, with the provincial anti-gang unit, told The Province on Wednesday that the force has been looking into gang activity in youth jails for many years. "This is nothing new and people should not be surprised at it," said Houghton, who added that the notorious Red Scorpions gang — responsible for one of the province's worst gang-related murders in 2007 — was founded in the Burnaby jail.
However, the head of programs for the Burnaby youth jail put out a statement on Thursday that said the closure of the Victoria jail was not to blame for the riot and that the impetus for the incident was "a room search earlier in the day, which resulted in a loss of privileges."
Purdy added that the inmates responsible for the violence have been separated from the general prison population, and an internal investigation is pending.
Follow Rachel Browne on Twitter: @rp_browne