Analysis
Mark Rendell
Mark Rendell

Youth on the Run

How did two people escape from the North Slave Young Offenders Facility last week? They walked through an unlocked front door. Why was that door unlocked? EDGE explains

When Denecho King escaped the North Slave Correctional Centre, it was through a “pre-existing” security gap and across the roof. When two youths escaped the North Slave Young Offenders Facility a mere week later, it was straight through the unlocked front door.

We don't know exactly what happened around 9:00 a.m. on Friday, Aug. 19, when the two young offenders, whose identities were not given because they’re underage, left custody only to be apprehended at a downtown apartment later that day. The fact that they were able to stroll out of a supposedly secure facility has left an incredulous taste in mouths across Yellowknife, already shaken by the King escape. But open custody — unlocked doors and all — is par for the course in our youth criminal justice system. Here’s what we know about it:

What is open custody?

Essentially, it’s a form of low-security detainment for young people  deemed to not be serious threats. It’s a step-up from house arrest, but not quite jail proper. While in open custody, youth are monitored day and night by corrections officers (or at least they’re supposed to be) — but the part of the facility they’re housed in is more open-concept, and they’re given freer rein to move about the facility. For more serious offenders, there’s a separate area in the building that acts more like a jail.

“Open custody operates under a less restrictive manner and promotes more integration in the community,” explains Chris Comeau, warden of the youth facility. Youth cannot come and go as they please, but it’s easier for them to access “reintegration leave” — basically day passes out of the facility — or attend supervised work.

Why is the front door left unlocked?

It seems counterintuitive to detain people, to not allow them to go in and out as they wish, and yet still leave the front door open. It’s almost an Garden of Eden situation: here’s a juicy apple, but don’t you dare eat it.

Leaving the door unlocked, however, sends an important message, says Comeau: “You can go if you want but there’s ramifications.”

“By leaving the door unlocked, you’re showing someone you trust them,” explains Yellowknife defence lawyer Peter Harte. “You’re investing them with your confidence that they’re going to do what they’re supposed to do.”

This ‘investing of confidence’ might seem optimistic, given that the system is dealing with young people, and often troubled ones at that — and seriously, what 17-year-old doesn't test the bonds of parental or other authority? Yet, it is important to note: last week was the first time since the centre opened that anyone has taken advantage of the facility’s open door policy. In 2010, a youth made a short-lived dash while on an outing to one of the City’s recreational facilities — but other than that, until last week the confidence (or perhaps, more accurately, the surveillance) has seemed to work as a deterrent.

Who gets placed in open custody?

“You can’t paint a picture of who can be placed in open custody. There are so many different factors, and it’s really up the judge,” says Comeau.

The judge looks at the age of the offender, their personal circumstance, their history with the law and the seriousness of their crime. Youth can only be placed in open custody after they’re sentenced — if they’re in the facility on remand before their trial, they will be housed in the secure part of the building.

Comeau wouldn’t say if open custody is restricted to offenders charged with nonviolent crimes. But as Harte explains, a 14-year-old charged with assaulting someone at a party would be more likely to get open custody than a 17-year-old charged with assault causing bodily harm.

“At the beginning of somebody’s involvement with the law, they’re going to try to put them in a situation that is less institutional, closer to home, with less restrictions,” says Harte.

There’s even the possibility that non-serious offenders would be placed in open custody, rather than something like house arrest, if the judge believed it could provide them with more structure to achieve certain goals.

“Of course you’re not allowed to put a kid into custody because of a lack of social services,” adds Harte. “But if there’s the possibility to help a kid get a school year done, in a place where attendance is regularly monitored, that could play a role. There’s really a mix of considerations a judge takes into account.”

Were there any staffing issues?

Earlier in the summer, the GNWT announced it was planning to save $1.1 million by merging the young offenders facility with the adult facility into a North Slave Correctional Complex. This move means staff will be shared between the two facilities and several of vacancies at both will go unfilled.

With this in the background, some critics have wondered if staffing issues played a role in Friday’s walkout.

No, staffing levels weren’t the issue, according to Comeau: “We were fully staffed… and we currently have a staffing level that’s appropriate to the number of offenders.”

There are currently only three youth in the facility (that’s including the two who walked away), which was built in 2005 to house up to 25 people. The number of prisoners has steadily declined since 2005 when there was a high of 19 people in the facility.

So if we’re to take Comeau’s word and staffing levels were “appropriate” at the time of the escape, what went wrong?

Comeau: “We’re currently in a state where we need to do a review.”

Have the youth been charged?

“They have not been charged at this time, but the investigation is ongoing,” says RCMP spokesperson Marie York-Condon.  “The RCMP and Public Prosecutions Service work very closely in most investigations, so when PPSE feels there’s enough evidence for trial and conviction, they could lay charges.”

Have the two escapees been placed in more secure custody since the escape? Comeau wouldn't say.