The importance of institutional culture to the adjustment of incarcerated youth and young adults.

AuthorCesaroni, Carla

In 1999, a coroner's inquest was held into the death of 16-year-old James Lonnee. At the rime, Lonnee was the only youth who had died while in custody in Ontario, Canada. The coroner's inquest brought together the co-authors of this article for the first time and provided the impetus for one of the authors to make her research focus the adjustment of incarcerated youth. It also brought the authors together with Tony Doob, (1) who was a central part of that coroner's inquest, acting as the expert witness for the Canadian Foundation for Children, Youth and the Law, a youth advocacy organization granted intervener status at the inquest. His testimony was critical in highlighting the conditions of confinement for adolescent males in secure facilities throughout the province and essential to the 119 recommendations that arose from the inquest.

James Lonnee's death in 1996 and the subsequent inquest in 1999 are representative of some of the most significant problems that existed in youth corrections at the time and occurred during a critical turning point in the history of the Young Offenders Act (YOA). With the death of 19-year-old Ashley Smith in 2007 at the Grand Valley Institute for Women in Kitchener, Ontario, and the coroner's inquest that began in January of 2013, we argue that we are once again at a critical point in corrections, this time for young adults. (2)

In this article, we review issues within youth corrections under the YOA. We also highlight some of the more significant conclusions of the inquest into the death of James Lonnee. We discuss key findings from research that focuses on the experiences and adjustment of youth in custody and pre-trial detention. Concerns regarding the use of segregation with adolescents and young adults are also discussed. Finally, drawing on theory and research on emerging adulthood--the developmental period following adolescence--we highlight the need for attention to the experiences of young adults in prison.

Youth Corrections under the Young Offenders Act and the Lonnee inquest

It is generally agreed that, under the YOA, custody dispositions were overused for minor and non-violent offences and the rate of placing youth in custody in Canada was higher than in many other Western jurisdictions (Bala 2003; Department of Justice Canada 1998; Doob and Sprott 2004). Across the country, the youth correctional system was severely taxed and many facilities were operating over capacity. Reviews of the conditions of confinement for youth confirmed the fact that peer-on-peer violence, always an issue in young offender institutions, were worsened by over-crowding (see Leschied, Cunningham, and Mazaheri 1997, for a review of the problem in both Canadian and U.S. youth facilities). In Ontario, administrative responsibility for 16- and 17-year-olds rested with the adult correctional ministry, and several youth in this age group were housed in adult correctional facilities, albeit in separate sections known as young offender units (Cooke and Finlay 2007).

It is against this backdrop that the death of James Lonnee occurred. In September of 1996, Lonnee was placed in secure isolation in an adult detention centre where an adult segregation area was used for secure isolation of young offenders. Adult correctional officers--not youth workers--were used as guards for all offenders in that area, regardless of age. Lonnee was later moved into an isolation cell with another youth, who had a history of violence, to make room for additional inmates. This youth was subsequently convicted of manslaughter for beating Lonnee to death.

Tony Doob's testimony at the inquest, summarized in a report entitled The Experiences of Phase II Male Young Offenders in Secure Facilities in the Province of Ontario (Doob 1999), focused on several key concerns, including the extent of peer-on-peer violence in young offender institutions and the implicit role of staff in perpetuating that violence. The research that formed the basis for this report (see also Peterson-Badali and Koegl 2002) supported the conclusion that Lonnee's death was not an isolated incident but reflected several systemic problems that existed in young offender institutions at the time. Several of the inquest's final recommendations were tied directly to the report's findings.

Chief among the recommendations were the following: (a) adult correctional officers should not be used to supervise young offenders, as they may 'contaminate' youth with adult correctional attitudes, philosophy, and culture; (b) all aspects of youth corrections administration, staffing, and delivery should be youth-centred and should require special expertise to establish a youth-focused system; (c) there should be a decrease in the reliance on custody to reduce demands on the space and system; (d) recognizing the duty to protect youth and prevent violence, management styles must address issues of institutional violence and support a 'zero tolerance for violence' culture; and finally (e) the use of adult type segregation cells for secure isolation of young offenders must be abolished in favour of a more appropriate temporary containment of youth in crisis (Ontario Ministry of the Solicitor General 1999).

At least one of the Lonnee inquest's key recommendations has been fulfilled. Since the enactment of Youth Criminal Justice Act (YCJA) in 2003, there has been a significant decline in the use of custody for sentenced youth, though rates of pre-trial detention remain similar (Bala, Carrington, and Roberts 2009). However, several of the inquest's other key recommendations have yet to be implemented. They remind us of the significance of institutional culture and staff-youth relations to the experience and adjustment of incarcerated youth. They also resonate with a more recent case and inquest: that of 19-year-old Ashley Smith.

Young people's adjustment to incarceration

At the time of the Lonnee inquest, very little had been written about the experiences and adjustment of youth in custody or pre-trial detention in...

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