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An insider's peek at the Manitoba Youth Centre

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Sometimes, it's odd how life works.

There's been a huge focus on youth crime in Winnipeg lately and it's not difficult to see why.
With a group of psueudo-famillial gangs of teens running around the city stealing cars and causing havoc over and over again only to go to jail and be put back on the streets, people are furious and often, I have to say, mystified by the perception nothing's being done.

Their phone calls, letters and e-mails show that there's a lack of faith in the justice system to deal with the problem these teens pose. You only need scroll through the comments on this nacent blog to see that when it comes to solving the serious issue of youth crime, the opinions are often fierce.

A phone call late last week from a concerned mother of a teen whose spent time at the MYC on a minor charge, was released on a curfew and breached it only to land him back inside again raised some serious questions for me, not necessarily about philosophical issues relating to youth justice, but about the place that most of these kids wind up - The dour-looking Manitoba Youth Centre on Doncaster.

The mom, clearly frustrated by her son's situation - raised some serious questions about the "mesh" between Manitoba's education, child protection, justice and probation services when kids are in "open custody" (serving a sentence) at the MYC.

If the emphasis is indeed on rehabilitation for youth, I've been wondering what evidence we have that the MYC is set up for this purpose, and how effectively is carries it out. Since the general public and media only truly have access to one tiny part of the MYC complex - the dim, cramped youth courtroom - how can we know what happens on the inside?

I suppose then, it's serendipity that I was placed in a seat next to "Don" - a former MYC corrections worker on an airplane today.

For a number of years, Don worked inside one of the 12 "cottages" at the MYC that house the kids who go there - and he not only filled me in on the layout and design of the centre, but explained a couple of things to me as well, which I'll break down in bullets for brevity.

Note: he hasn't worked there in a year or two now, so any of what he told me may have changed since he left - I write it as just things for you to consider strictly from his informed perspective. I was intrigued to hear about the centre, of which not much is known.

1] Youth in custody are given 45 minutes of outside time (in an open to the elements centre-court) a day, coupled with 45 minutes of gym time indoors. The rest of the time they are typically locked in their cottages or rooms.

2] In a kind of reverse irony compared to Winnipeg's Auto Theft Strategy, kids are rated by corrections guards on a rate of one to four, with one being poorest, four being the most co-operative with staff and peers, do their homework, and volunteer for extra chores . Kids rated as 'ones' are allowed no access to telephone calls, computer time (Don wasn't sure if there was Internet access yet - it was being considered when he left) and have to be locked in their "cells" (really a locked room with a window on the door by 8:00 p.m.).

3] The best kids - level 4's - are allowed to work in the MYC cafeteria, netting them $1.25/hour, which can be used on Friday "Coke Runs," where they are allowed to purchase pop and chips.

4] Inside each of the "cottages" there are 12 rooms, a classroom, bathroom with one shower and three toilets and a TV set, Don said. In the middle of each cottage is a "control room" where the on-duty corrections officer operates the locks on the doors and generally co-ordinates the activity in the room.
On weekends or other busy times for remands and arrests the number of kids housed in each cottage can grow to 24. On one occasion Don said there were as many as 30 kids to a room. The best room (one with a view of the outdoors) is saved for what he termed "the leader," the young offender in the position as "pack leader" in the cottage.

5] Corrections officers ignore safety protocol at their peril - He told me of two instances where guards were seriously assaulted by kids who cunningly looked for weaknesses in the attending officer's behaviour and waited to strike- on one occasion, two youths were able to escape from the centre, triggering a police search for them.

6] The worst pressure point in the MYC is the cafeteria, where three groups of kids from different cottages at a time converge for meals. Don said it's often the place that gang-violence rears up in the place as youths from competing gangs bait each other.

7] There's a small chapel at the MYC, along with a room off the gym for traditional aboriginal ceremonies. It's not known who gets to go to church or attend spiritual sessions - The mother who phoned me last week said it's her understanding that kids who show gang-affliations are barred from church or spiritual workshops. This is unconfirmed.

8] The demographics: Don told me that the vast majority of kids housed in the MYC during his time there were aboriginal (about 70 per cent), about 10 per cent of Metis descent, and 10 per cent white.
The other 10 per cent is made up of black kids, often new to the city - Don said it's his impression that this number has probably climbed a bit since he left.

There was a lot more that we discussed, which will figure in later posts - I just wanted to leave this with you to chew on. Weigh in in the comments with your perception of the MYC based on Don's description of it.

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