Ontario youth detention centres at overcapacity, creating concerns as another is set to close

More than three years after shutting down roughly half of its youth detention centres, Ontario is seeing overcrowding at its remaining publicly run facilities.

In 2021, the province closed 26 centres.

Today, there are 20 privately run transfer payment centres and five public direct-operated facilities.

Last week, publicly run youth jails in Sudbury, Simcoe and Brampton were 100 per cent full or over capacity, according to CBC News sources. For June 6, on average, all five facilities averaged 101 per cent capacity. The other two, which were under capacity during the same time frame, are in Sault Ste. Marie and Thunder Bay.

The centres house youth charged or incarcerated in violent crimes like murder, armed robbery and burglary.

Michael Fallon, co-chair of Ontario’s Corrections Ministry employee relations committee (Corrections MERC), said he hasn’t seen numbers consistently this high since before the province closed the centres during the pandemic — a move he says was justified at the time.

“They’ve been coming back into custody for these serious crimes,” said Fallon, who’s with Local 290 of the Ontario Public Service Employees Union (OPSEU).

“We’ve filled up our beds — we’ve had to add more beds to our facilities and we haven’t added any facilities.”

Inside a Roy McMurtry Youth Centre room.
Inside a Roy McMurtry Youth Centre room. (Infrastructure Ontario)

According to Fallon, Ontario’s plan so far has been to open up more beds.

“They added a unit to existing facilities. However, they didn’t staff units with more staff. What they did was they added 13 beds at the Simcoe building, and they added 16 beds at the Brampton building, and they did not allow for any more staffing.”

Sudbury youth jail to close in 2025

As announced last year, Sudbury’s youth detention centre is set to close in the spring of 2025 and be revamped into a jail for adult females.

Staff are being offered jobs at the adult facility, but Fallon is unsure how the youth inmates will be dispersed across the system with overcrowding already proving to be an obstacle.

“They haven’t shared what their plan is with us.”

He said their staffing is already at “bare-bones minimum,” and some people are working anywhere from 12- to 16-hour shifts to meet demand.

“It’s creating a dangerous environment for both the staff and youth. The youth live there. They have to live there. It’s creating a lot of mental health issues and a lot of burnout with the staff.”

Fallon said because corrections jobs are considered essential, the pressure to work longer hours exists to ensure someone is present to ensure the building is safe and run properly.

“We can’t just open the doors and let them out.”

The Ministry of Children, Community and Social Services (MCCSS) said in a statement that it monitors the utilization of custody and detention systems to maintain “appropriate capacity” and respond to changing needs within the youth justice system.

As for the Cecil Facer Youth Centre (Sudbury) transition, the ministry’s communication team said it’s business as usual for the time being for as long as “routine operations are maintained.”

“This will allow MCCSS to carefully plan for transitioning youth when required, with the best interest, well-being and safety of the youth at the centre of all considerations,” the statement said. “It also allows MCCSS to meaningfully engage Indigenous, justice and community partners for advice on how we can support the transition of youth to other facilities when required.”

The Official Opposition critic for MCCSS said the stress on the system will be made much worse by the upcoming Sudbury closure, and she fears for the safety of the young inmates and staff working with them.

Monique Taylor is the NDP MPP for the riding of Hamilton Mountain. She's also the official opposition critic children, community and social services in Ontario.
NDP MPP Monique Taylor, the Official Opposition critic for children, community and social services in Ontario, says young people are put in a ‘precarious position’ when detention centres are overcapacity. (CBC)

Monique Taylor, NDP MPP for the riding of Hamilton Mountain, calls it concerning.

“When we go overcapacity, we are already putting too much pressure on that system, on that facility, on those workers, which then in turn puts those young people in a precarious position, and that’s not OK.”

Taylor said more investment is needed for children’s futures.

“We’ve probably already failed them somewhere, and once they’re in trouble, we’re not even providing them the safe space, the proper bedding, the resources that they need to be able to succeed and to be able to rehabilitate to get their lives back on track.”

Stress on families

Windsor lawyer Patricia Brown represents a lot of young people in southwestern Ontario.

Brown said she’s not surprised some youth detention centres are overcapacity because she sees it consistently first hand.

The closest facility from Windsor, for example, is in Simcoe — a three-hour drive.

“We no longer have a facility where I can simply go down the street or meet the client — or their parents can come and see them locally,” she said.

Brown said she has clients who end up moving from one facility to another.

“The turnaround doesn’t allow them to continue to get settled, to get acclimated a bit, to get connected to counseling support and start to build a rapport with the staff.”

Patricia Brown is a Windsor, Ont., lawyer.
Patricia Brown, a Windsor, Ont., lawyer, says she’s not surprised some youth detention centres are overcapacity because she sees it consistently first hand. (CBC)

The distance some youth are moved to open beds can also exacerbate issues for families already dealing with language barriers, she said.

“They’re not familiar with the Canadian judicial system or criminal justice system. If they don’t have the financial means to get there to see their child, it can create a significant amount of stress and distress for the family — and they don’t really have system navigators.”

Ministers have to come together and look at what can we do, because if we lose those beds and we’re already in a state of overcrowding, what’s the alternative? Are you going to house them with adults? What are we doing next?– Patricia Brown, lawyer in Windsor, Ont.

When there’s a bail hearing, said Brown, and it’s taken place via video, the child would still be in that detention facility hours outside their hometown.

“The parents are expected to travel to that jurisdiction wherever the child is, to pick the child up and bring them back to their home. It’s financially a hardship for some families to have to do that.”

Brown believes the province will need to take steps to revisit the idea of closing facilities — keeping in mind the mental health of young people being incarcerated.

“I think that we have to pause. I think ministers have to come together and look at what can we do, because if we lose those beds and we’re already in a state of overcrowding, what’s the alternative? Are you going to house them with adults? What are we doing next?”

Boy sits on floor of detention centre.
In 2021, Ontario closed 26 centres. There remain 20 privately run transfer payment facilities and five public direct-operated ones. Overcapacity issues are causing concerns about their impact on youth and their families, as well as on staff. (Peerayot/Shutterstock)

Brown said she’d like to see a facility back in southwestern Ontario.

“This particular program served our region very well. It was working very well. And I think we just need them to open beds back in this jurisdiction.”

Taylor said although she won’t lobby or advocate for more facilities, more thought needs to be put into where they are in relation to where people live and where the highest need is.

“We definitely, unfortunately, are seeing youth mental health on the rise. We’re seeing crime on the rise. We’re seeing all of these things on the rise.”

MCCSS staff say they recognize the importance of youth maintaining connection with their home communities — especially as it relates to reintegration following their release.

“However, given the relatively smaller size of the youth justice system, youth may not always be placed within their home community,” the ministry said in a statement.

“Across Ontario, MCCSS supports continued connections … which helps mitigate financial barriers to visitation, along with investments in video calling capabilities to allow youth to connect with family, guardians, elders and positive mentors.”