The alarm bells were ringing well before two detainees broke out of the Whitehorse Young Offenders Facility over the summer.
Thankfully, these fugitives—one of whom was by that point an adult and being detained on second-degree murder charges—were quickly apprehended by the RCMP.
But it is unclear if adequate action has yet been taken to address the problems that led to the escape and stop it from happening again.
Documents obtained by the Star through an access to information request, along with court records, paint a picture of this incident as a near-miss that almost resulted in an alleged killer on the loose in Whitehorse.
The two inmates had escaped the youth detention centre at around 7 p.m. on Aug. 22.
They were part of a group of five who had been brought to the Yukon on Aug. 17 from the Northwest Territories during wildfire evacuations.
The RCMP responded with a police dog and quickly captured the duo, who were by that point running through the woods toward Yukon University.
The Star is withholding the name of the adult detainee because his charges in the Northwest Territories are for crimes allegedly committed while he was a minor.
The other runaway detainee is still a minor, so his records are not public.
Tanya MacKenzie, the acting manager of youth justice at Family and Children’s Services, defended the response, saying she does not believe this represents a systemic breakdown.
“I wouldn’t say the system failed,” she told the Star on Friday.
“I would say that, with any facility, incidents occur and respon-ses accordingly happen.”
Despite this characterization, internal documents from Family and Children’s Services show that concerns were raised by staff in the days leading up to the incident, and that yet-to-be fulfilled recommendations were made afterward.
The Star requested a copy of the full incident review and recommendations, but it was not provided.
In the weeks prior to the arrival of the N.W.T. detainees, the detention centre was only housing one person.
Tensions began shortly after the five new detainees arrived.
This group included the young adult facing murder charges, a person who incident reports describe as “large, aggressive” and “manipulative.”
Because his alleged crimes occurred when he was under 18, he was brought to the Young Offenders Facility.
This facility is run by Family and Children’s Services, not the Department of Justice, like the Whitehorse Correctional Centre.
MacKenzie told the Star it is not unheard of to have adults who were charged as youth at the Range Road facility.
“I’ve only been there eight months, so it hasn’t occurred in my time,” she said. “But it’s my understanding, having worked for Department of Justice previously, as well, that that can occur on occasion.”
Asked whether staff had raised concerns about this group or about this individual, MacKenzie said that “as far as I’m concerned, it’s not something that I was aware of.”
But in an email on the day before the escape, youth service team leader Nicole Loranger warned MacKenzie the “new staff are very nervous.”
Loranger told MacKenzie they were looking at organizing some interim restraint training to be conducted by Chris Saunders — an experienced staff member and former restraint trainer — until they could get proper training through the Justice Institute of B.C.
“He figures 3 days of training for about 10 staff should be enough to boost their confidence until the (Justice Institute) training happens,” Loranger wrote.
MacKenzie said this restraint training is not a prerequisite for staff at the facility, and is done on an ongoing basis.
“We always have a number of senior staff on with those more new staff,” she said. “I would say that the staff are very well supported and trained.”
Loranger’s email also said staff were concerned enough to ask that regular utensils be removed from the dining area and the inmates be required to use plastic cutlery.
“I believe these kids are testing boundaries, there have been no major incidents yet,” Loranger said, “more testing and challenging staff.”
Asked about the cutlery, MacKenzie did acknowledge that she agreed to make this change, despite saying previously she was unaware of concerns relating to detainees’ behaviour.
“If a concern is elevated, then we react and support that accordingly,” she said. “We did so in these cases as we got to know the youth.”
It was just before shift change on a Tuesday evening when the commotion began.
According to incident reports—which are heavily redacted—something happened between an inmate and staff member Adrian Aproskie at about 6:30 that caused Aproskie to call for the facility to be put into lockdown.
At about 6:45, several more staff arrived for shift change, including Saunders.
Saunders took the lead as the most experienced staff member. About 20 minutes later, he went out and “engaged verbally” with the person causing the commotion.
Details from incident reports are blacked out at this point, but shortly thereafter, Saunders and the rest of the staff were forced to withdraw.
“The entire youth service worker team retreated and got (out) of the secure unit,” reads an incident report written by Aproskie.
“After confirming all team members were safe, we regrouped and began to plan the next course of action after having someone call the RCMP.”
In territorial court on Sept. 15, Crown prosecutor Lisa Mathews filled in some of the details.
She said the inmate had produced a “homemade knife,” hit the fire alarm, and managed to get out of the facility.
“He pulled a knife on the guard in the facility, ripped an alarm from the wall which unlocked all the cells, basically caused a riot,” Mathews told the court.
She continued, saying he “fled with another inmate through the woods and was arrested after being trapped with a dog.”
MacKenzie would not comment on the specific details of the escape—she said she was not there at the time—but other than disagreeing with the prosecutor’s characterization of it as a riot, she did not dispute this description of events.
The adult escapee is now facing five new charges, including prison breach, being unlawfully-at-large, carrying a knife for a dangerous purpose, threatening Saunders with a knife and property damage.
His accomplice is charged with being unlawfully-at-large and prison breach.
The adult escapee was moved to the adult Whitehorse Correctional Centre the day after the escape attempt, according to court documents, and eventually sent back to the Northwest Territories.
In the days following the escape, staff began to take stock of why it happened, communicating with each other about any changes that need to be made to staff training and to the facility.
An email from MacKenzie to Family and Children’s Services operations manager Derek Baldwin on Aug. 24 goes over the scheduling for new staff to get introductory restraint training the following weekend.
The email also has a section listing “some of the things we discussed in regards to Health and Safety” that require a financial commitment.
A large section of the email is then redacted, so it is unclear what the recommendations are —or if they have been completed yet. In an information note also dated Aug. 24, the need for infrastructure improvements is expanded upon. “…there are limitations with the current infrastructure at (the Young Offenders Facility) which did play a role in this event,” the note reads.
The note continues, saying the facility needs to install a new electronic security system and build an isolation room with a bathroom.
“The Young Offenders Facility does not have an isolation room with its own bathroom (Wet Cell) when there is a need for no contact for longer periods of time,” the note reads.
“When a young offender is a threat to themselves or others it is a challenge with the cur- rent building.”
Asked if any of these changes have been made yet, MacKenzie said a new electronic security system is now in place, but that and the lack of a “wet cell” played no part in the escape.
“I would say that the wet cell, the electronic system, did not play any part of the incident,” she said. “I can say that a number of initiatives have been taken to do regular maintenance of the facility.”
She could not point to any specific initiatives that were completed to address problems that did play a role in the escape.
All of this information was not made public — despite some of the officials involved being initially inclined to include it in media releases.
An Aug. 24 email from Loranger to MacKenzie with the subject line “Media release” included information identifying the individuals involved as from the Northwest Territories, as well as a bit about how the staff had safety concerns prior to the escape.
After this email was sent to a few more officials, including Department of Justice senior policy analyst Lauren Muir, less and less information was left for release.
“The residency of origin serves no purpose for the public and may cause discrimination based on regional location,” Muir wrote.
In the end, the RCMP produced a media release saying simply that two people had escaped from the Young Offenders Facility and that they were quickly apprehended. Their charges were also listed.
This was the same simple characterization of the event that MacKenzie gave.
“The youth, again, left the facility for a very short time,” she said. “We were able to secure the event very quickly.”
In an email thanking RCMP Sgt. Dustin Grant for the quick response, Leeann Kayseas, the director of Family and Children’s Services, wrote that it was because of the deployment of police that the public were kept safe.
“Without the help of your team we would not have been successful in stabilizing what could have been and even more high risked (sic) situation,” Kayseas wrote.
It is clear from this email that without the RCMP’s intervention, the situation could have ended much worse.