As a third year law student, I have spent much of the last two years learning about various areas of law and how they operate theoretically. While my legal education has featured some discussion about law in practice, it has been rather minimal. Additionally, these conversations have not take place in the context of discussing the various institutions that law intersects with. I recently had the unique experience of seeing the praxis of law and its intersection with institutional policies and practices thanks to a perspective class. This experience taught me that as a future lawyer, I need to be aware of the ways in which institutional policies and practices affect my clients in order to be a more effective advocate.
I was very fortunate to spend half a day at the Manitoba Youth Centre (MYC) touring the facility as a part of my Children and the Youth Law course taught by Dr. Lorna Turnbull. At the MYC, I got to see first hand what it was like for the law that I had learned about in the classroom to look like in practice, and how law affects individuals who are involved in institutions, such as the youth who stay at the MYC or those who are involved in its operations. Additionally, institutions have their own unique sets of policies and practices that are not included in legislation or in the public sphere. This means that understanding of an institution’s culture may need to be learned through practice.
I spent my morning touring the MYC with classmates under the direction of an admissions staff member who had been working there for nearly 20 years. The first thing that I could tell was that the staff member was very knowledgeable and passionate about her work and had a high level of knowledge about legal principles and correctional facilities. All of the staff members that I came in contact with were positive and happy to be working at the MYC, which was not something that I expected. I had expected staff to be drained, stressed out, and frustrated by the work that they do because of how difficult and emotional it must be. Many of the staff members stated that they enjoy being a positive role model for the youth and want to see them improve through the programming, care, and opportunities provided by the MYC. I found it to be particularly powerful that many of the staff mentioned that it is not their job to judge the youth for who they are or what they have done. I think that society tends to judge people in correctional facilities without having an understanding or appreciation of the various factors that bring people into contact with the legal system and institutions such as the MYC. While I entered the facility with preconceived notions about the youth staying there, I left with a changed perspective and appreciation for the work done by MYC staff.
One of the first observations that I made at the youth centre was that youth were able to participate in physical activity outside. Most of the youth wore sweatshirts and sweatpants, and it almost seemed as if the youth were typical individuals and not incarcerated. I did not see any youth handcuffed, and the atmosphere at the centre was casual because staff did not wear uniforms. The staff discussed various logistical considerations that need to be taken at the centre at all times, including making sure that certain groups of youth or single individuals are not in the same room, or even crossing the same space at the same time. Operations at the MYC can become held up due to logistical considerations, meaning that transfers of youth to see their lawyers, social workers, family members, or to go to appointments can sometimes be delayed. The staff all have to work closely together to keep everyone within the facility safe, and their discussions about safety focused primarily on the safety of the youth, then the safety of visitors, and then their own safety. I got a sense that the security provisions at the facility were framed from a perspective of protecting youth first and then foremost, which is something that I had not given much thought to previously.
One of the first departments within the MYC that I saw was the medical department. I learned that the MYC has ample medical care for its youth from nurses, psychologists and psychiatrists, mental health support workers, doctors, and staff who are trained in first aid. What I did not expect to see was a unit of cells designated for youth who are brought to the centre and are too intoxicated to be processed by intake staff. While I expected units like that to exist at the Remand Centre, I was reminded that substance abuse is a problem that can affect youth at a fairly young age, and that this issue, along with many others, is a contributing factor as to why youth commit crime. It seemed that addressing mental health, substance abuse, and anger management issues was the primary focus of treatment and programming at the facility. This is a logical approach because addressing underlying issues such as addictions and mental health issues is a necessary step to keep youth safe and prevent them from committing crimes in the future. The MYC works with an organization called the Manitoba Adolescent Treatment Centre to provide services to youth within the facility, and this seems to be an integral component in its success. I did not expect for so many sources of support and programming to be offered in a correctional facility.
The medical staff also noted the growing issue of meth use and how increasing numbers of youth are being brought to the centre and require extra medical attention, that youth are experiencing lengthier bouts of being impaired, and that more youth are going into a state of psychosis while on drugs. This makes ensuring that youth appear before a judge within the required 24 hours of being brought to the MYC difficult because youth should be sober and able to make decisions with their lawyers and social service providers before appearing before a judge. If a youth has to be taken to a medical facility outside of the MYC, such as a hospital, there can be even further delays. As a future lawyer, this made me aware of the need to understand how institutions help those who use their services. It made me aware that service providers such as lawyers may have their own expectations for when and how they will work with their clients, but that they need to be aware of and respect institutional policies and practices that may take up time.
Another part of the tour was spent viewing the units that the youth lived in. My first impression was that although the MYC looked like a comfortable place to visit, it is a highly organized and regimented facility that would be restrictive to live in. Youth were only allowed to place personal items on a small part of one wall in their cell/room, and they otherwise seemed to have few personal items. Many of the youth spend a considerable amount of their time in “school”, which is a classroom where youth in their unit are taught together despite working at different grade levels. The youth had different work volumes and received different supports depending on their unique educational needs, which is important due to the increased rate of youth with FASD, cognitive and behaviour concerns, and other factors that would make learning in a traditional setting difficult.
I was pleased to see that youth were able to have jobs within the facility such as cleaning the cafeteria area and the living space within their unit and preparing meals. Jobs are awarded based on an application process that mirrors the outside world, meaning that youth have to prepare a resume and go through an interview process to get a job. The youth also have to demonstrate good behaviour in order to get a job, and I thought that these processes for getting a job were helpful in preparing youth for life outside of MYC. In a way, rewarding youth with the opportunity to have a job is a form of programming and treatment that I would not have recognized had I not toured the facility.
Towards the end of the tour, I saw a large room designated for cultural activities. The walls were decorated with beautiful paintings and depictions of Indigenous teachings, which is important considering that the majority of the youth at the MYC are Indigenous. The room is used for arts and crafts, beading, smudging ceremonies, and other traditional activities that are lead by an Indigenous elder. The staff person who led the tour commented on how the youth who visit the cultural room are always on their best behaviour and that there are never any incidents with the youth in the room. This signified to me the respect that the youth have for their culture, and the need for connection to one’s community in order to heal and improve outcomes, whether they are behavioural or otherwise. The cultural room was one space where processes seemed to be slightly less structured and regimented, which suggests that not all forms of rehabilitating youth need to be strict and formally organized. I did not expect a correctional facility to focus on providing activities that were so culturally informed, but was delighted to see this because of how significant community can be for individuals. One recurring theme in my children and the law class was the importance of community in achieving the best interests of children and best outcomes, and the cultural room was one way of seeing the discovery of community connection as a means to heal.
I found my visit to the Manitoba Youth Centre to be eye opening and beneficial as a future lawyer. One significant takeaway for me was to have awareness of the operations of the institutions that I interact with. This knowledge can allow for me to be a better advocate for my clients and provide legal services in a well-rounded and more expedient manner. Expectations of clients, lawyers, and institutional staff can be better met and understood when the rules and policies of institutions are known. Sometimes this information is not easily or readily available, meaning that service providers may need to ask for assistance to understand policies and procedures and not make assumptions. While I personally do not expect to practice law directly involving children and youth who come into contact with the criminal law system, the perspective that I gained while touring the Manitoba Youth Centre can be transferable to other institutions and areas of law.