Three advocacy groups are calling on the province's watchdog for children to review the B.C. government's plan to transfer girl prisoners to Burnaby's youth prison.
"The Ministry for Children and Families will subject girls to hours of transportation in shackles," said Annabel Webb, director of Justice for Girls.
On Wednesday, news of the plan came to light from the B.C. Government and Service Employees' Union, which is in the midst on contract negotiations with the provincial government. The government is closing the girls' units inside youth prisons in Victoria and Prince George to save money by centralizing services in Burnaby's youth prison.
"The consequences of this kind of displacement can be dire. Two aboriginal girls committed suicide in 2010 while incarcerated in Manitoba. Both girls had been displaced many kilometers from their home communities," Webb said.
On Friday, Jan. 20, Justice for Girls, along with the B.C. Civil Liberties Association and West Coast LEAF, sent a letter outlining their concerns to Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond, B.C.'s representative for children and youth.
"We are deeply concerned that instead of creating community based alternatives to imprisonment, the ministry will breach girls' human rights, particularly aboriginal girls who are disproportionately represented in B.C. youth prisons, by displacing girls hundreds of kilometers from their home communities and subjecting them to cruel and inhumane conditions of confinement," the letter states.
The groups also expressed worry that when girls are released from prison they would be far from home, "left to fend for themselves in an unfamiliar city without access to resources or supports."
The Burnaby Youth Custody Services Centre is the largest of three youth prisons in B.C. Part of the government's rationale for the closures was based on the low numbers of female young offenders held in Victoria and Prince George, sometimes as few as one or two at a time.
"This decision was made after a review showed occupancy in our youth custody centres - now at only 65 per cent - has declined by 75 percent since 1995 resulting in a system that is under-utilized. It is incumbent on us as government to use resources as efficiently and effectively as possible," said a ministry spokesperson.
Webb said girls typically represent 20 per cent of the youth prison population.
"Obviously, we're happy to see the numbers down, the number of girls in prison, but the solution is not to remove them from their communities. We'd like to see some alternative within the community," she said.
The government is expecting to save $2.5 million from the closures, which will affect more than two dozen BCGEU employees: nine jobs will be cut in Prince George and 17 in Victoria.
According to the ministry, about $900,000 of the savings will be used to enhance rehabilitation services for youth in custody, including gender-specific programs for girls and enhanced addiction and mental health programs for both sexes.