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Child and Youth Advocate says Pepper Spray is used far too often in Alberta Young Offender Centres


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Office of the Child and Youth Advocate Alberta

From the office of Alberta’s Child and Youth Advocate

Child and Youth Advocate releases special report on OC spray and segregation in Alberta’s young offender centres

Alberta’s Child and Youth Advocate has completed a special report on oleoresin capsicum spray (OC spray, commonly referred to as pepper spray) and segregation in young offender centres.

The Advocate is making four recommendations related to reducing the use of OC spray and segregation as well as increasing accountability measures.

“Young people in custody often have complex needs and may present with difficult and challenging behaviours,” said Del Graff, Child and Youth Advocate. “It is imperative that the Young Offender Branch explores approaches to improve the health and well-being of young people while ensuring a safe environment for everyone. I sincerely hope the recommendations from this report will be quickly acted on to improve the circumstances for youth in custody.”

From January to March 2019, the OCYA received input from over 100 stakeholders through community conversations and one-to-one interviews. Young people, youth justice stakeholders, and community stakeholders shared their perspectives and experiences.

The purpose of this report is to provide advice to government related to improving the safety and well-being of young people in custody.

A copy of the report: “Care in Custody: A Special Report on OC Spray and Segregation in Alberta’s Young Offender Centres” is available on our website:

The Child and Youth Advocate has the authority under the Child and Youth Advocate Act to complete special reports on issues impacting children and youth who are receiving designated government services. This is the Advocate’s fourth special report.

The Office of the Child and Youth Advocate is an independent office of the Legislature, representing the rights, interests and viewpoints of children and young people receiving designated government services.

Executive Summary

In 2016, the Young Offender Branch, Ministry of Justice and Solicitor General, changed its policy, making it easier for correctional peace officers to use OC spray on incarcerated young people. Since then, the use of OC spray in youth justice facilities has steadily increased. By inflicting pain to control behaviour, the use of OC spray can damage relationships with youth justice staff, undermine rehabilitation efforts, and further traumatize young people.

The use of segregation in young offender centres is also a concern, as it can result in physical, psychological, and developmental harm to young people. Segregation is occurring without sufficient guidelines and safeguards to protect the well-being of young people. The current use of segregation undermines the Youth Criminal Justice Act’s (YCJA) principle of rehabilitation and reintegration. If segregation must occur for safety reasons, it should be short-term and must include meaningful interactions, mental health supports, and programming.

Further, complaints and review processes at young offender centres must be transparent and strengthened so that young people can challenge decisions without facing repercussions. They have the right to be supported through those processes by a person such as an advocate. Public reporting will also help ensure accountability and promote fair treatment of young people in custody.

Increased accountability changes behaviour and choices. Under the old policy, when the tactical team had to be called to use OC spray in youth justice facilities, it was only deployed once in approximately four years. Since correctional peace officers have been able to carry and use OC spray, it has been used on young people 60 times in the last three years. In the last four weeks of finalizing this report, OC spray was used 10 times.  This example is alarming and highlights the importance and timeliness of this report.

The treatment of young people in custody should uphold their human rights, in alignment with the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC).The current use of OC spray and segregation contradict the intention of the UNCRCand other United Nations rules and conventions.1 The Advocate urges the Young Offender Branch to review its policies and practices to ensure they align with the goals of its legislation and support the human rights of the young people they serve.

The Advocate is making the following four recommendations:

  1. OC spray should only be used in exceptional circumstances, if there is an imminent risk of serious physical harm to a young person or others.
  2. The Young Offender Branch should review and update their policies and standards to reduce the number of hours a young person can be segregated, ensure that they receive appropriate programming and supports, and improve conditions within segregation.
  1. The Young Offender Branch should develop an impartial complaints and review process for young people. An impartial multi-disciplinary committee that includes external stakeholders should hear complaints and reviews, and young people should have access to a supportive adult.
  2. The Young Offender Branch should monitor and publicly report all incidents of OC spray use and segregation annually.

After 15 years as a TV reporter with Global and CBC and as news director of RDTV in Red Deer, Duane set out on his own 2008 as a visual storyteller. During this period, he became fascinated with a burgeoning online world and how it could better serve local communities. This fascination led to Todayville, launched in 2016.

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