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Dion applauds closure of privately-run young offender facility

Janis Leering: The Mirror
November 28, 2003

Sharon Dion believes the provincial government is right in its decision to close the privately-run young offender camp south of Midland.

"The government has made the right decision to take the profit-motive out of youth facilities," said Dion, a Penetanguishene resident who is chairperson of Citizens Against Private Prisons.

The Liberals announced Wednesday that Project Turnaround, a privately-run youth correctional facility in Hillsdale, will be shut down when the contract expires next year.

"Before, that jail used to be self-sufficient, and the youth would take care of gardens and animals. I don't know what the government will do with the building because I don't know the shape it's in," she said.

Premier Dalton McGuinty said his decision is based on several practical reasons.

"I understand it has been less than half-full for quite some time now. It's become an expensive proposition, and we're convinced that we can do the job more effectively and efficiently through existing institutions," said McGuinty.

Project Turnaround opened in 1997 as a private facility for boys who were 16 or 17 when they committed a crime, although they may have been 18 by the time they actually entered the facility.

The concept is based on military-style living, and the youth wake up at 6 a.m. each day. There are no TVs or Walkmans for the youth, who spend four hours a day in the classroom.

The rest of the time is spent in treatment programs, physical education, or military drills.

One report said two boys staged a breakout the night the facility opened. They were captured after a three-hour chase through the bush.

The private company that runs the facility is Encourage Youth Corporation, and its contract with the government is worth approximately $2.5 million a year. McGuinty said this week there's no reason to renew it.

"The plant there is quite old. It requires some extensive capital investment and there are simply less expensive ways to get the job done."

Simcoe North MPP Garfield Dunlop said it makes him sick that the minister hasn't even visited the facility.

"This is a spiteful move, to save money, and it's a tragedy the government has done this," said Dunlop.

He heard the closure would start immediately.

"It has proven over and over again, young people had a huge success in going there - the pilot project worked well."

Dunlop said the facility was cheaper, and was accepted by the community. "As I said earlier, I think it should be expanded, not closed."

Sally Walker, director of the facility, didn't even know the contract wasn't going to be renewed until reading it in a newspaper. "I heard it through the media, and listened to the minister on the radio. I phoned the ministry to ask if it was true," said Walker.

After hearing it was, Walker says she has not had any other communication from the Ministry of Community Safety and Correctional Services. "I read it's being closed because it's more expensive, and because some inmates said they were mistreated by staff. That's not true."

There was also a statement that the facility is less than half-full, and Walker said that is untrue. "We do not have 54 staff, we have 36 staff here, plus three aftercare staff. We now have 32 (residents) at the facility. That's for a 24-hour, seven-day-a-week operation."

Walker also said the facility is not modelled after the United States boot camps, but after Canadian practice and research. "It's not a boot camp. We use a military framework, and it is an educational program, and we have high standards of behaviour here. We do some marching, and we have some protocols in place, but it's an educational and treatment program."

She said the youth used to stay for six months at the facility, but with the new Youth Criminal Justice Act, there are fewer children being given long sentences. Since Walker hasn't heard anything official from the government, she has not made any announcements to the youth or their parents, but she has started to address the issue.

"Staff have invested themselves, they are well-trained and committed. There is a need for programming in Ontario, and I would stack up our own safety record with any other facility."

Walker said even on Wednesday, a father drove down from Sudbury to inquire about enrolling his son.

She said the facility is addressing the deficiencies of the youth, whether it's communication or problem solving, anger management, or substance abuse.

"I would suggest people call the Child Advocate, we have an excellent safety record. We have a number of programs, that are the only kind in Canada. There's a lot of stuff done here."

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