Missed Opportunities: The Experience of Young Adults Incarcerated
in Federal Penitentiaries


  • The Office of the Correctional Investigator (OCI) partnered with Ontario’s Office of the Provincial Advocate for Children and Youth (OPACY) in conducting an investigation examining the experiences and vulnerabilities of young adults 18 to 21 years of age in federal custody. 
  • The partnership provided perspective on the trajectories of young people, how they come into conflict with the criminal justice system and how some “graduate” from the youth to the adult correctional system.  Working in collaboration yielded investigative findings that are both comprehensive and constructive.

Why We Did this Investigation

  • The Correctional Service of Canada (CSC) has done very little over the years with respect to correctional policy or program development for younger individuals in its care despite numerous recommendations from the Office and the Ontario Coroner’s Inquest examining the death of Ashley Smith. 
  • The distinction made between the youth and adult criminal justice systems is arbitrary.  Reaching the age of eighteen is not indicative of full physical and psychosocial development, but is still the point at which the legal system designates full culpability and criminal responsibility.     
  • Young adult offenders have distinct needs and limited life experiences and it is only because they have reached the age of 18 that they are serving a federal sentence in an adult institution. 
  • The period of development between adolescence to adulthood is complex.  Research suggests that brain development continues until about the age of twenty-five.  Significant changes occur during this period impacting behaviours such as self-control, decision-making, emotional regulation, risk-taking and impulse control.

What We Did

  • We conducted individual interviews with 94 young adult offenders 18 to 21 years of age (87 males and 7 females) in four regions (Ontario, Quebec, Atlantic and Prairie) at all levels of security (minimum, medium and maximum).
  • We reviewed relevant law and policy as well as best practices from a number of countries. 
  • Fifteen CSC staff members who work with young adults were also interviewed.    

What We Found

  • In 2015-16, young adult offenders comprised 2.7% (or 396 individuals, 17 women and 379 men) of the total federal inmate population (14,643).  Young Indigenous inmates represented nearly 2 in 5 inmates 18-21 years of age (38.4%) in federal custody.  Young Black inmates represented 12% of the young adult inmate population.  
  • When compared to other inmates, those 18 to 21 years of age serving a determinate sentence were more likely to: be serving a shorter sentence, have education and employment needs, be convicted of a violent offence (robbery and assault most common) and have a gang affiliation.
  • There were missed opportunities to have intervened early in the lives of some of these individuals and their families.  Many of those interviewed dropped out of school early, had substance abuse problems, were involved with the youth criminal justice system, bounced between foster homes and group homes or had parents struggling with addictions.  Only a very few individuals reported receiving any professional or social services assistance.
  • While in federal custody, almost all young adults reported doing very little in terms of productive or rehabilitative activities.  The majority were not attending correctional programs or education classes (they were often waitlisted).  The few who were working were often doing jobs that required limited skills such as cleaning the range.  Given that many young adults have short sentences, the focus should be on structuring their day with constructive and productive activities to better prepare them for community reintegration. 
  • Correctional programs are not tailored or adapted to meet the distinct needs of young adults.  While some young adults described parts of programs that were helpful, many reported difficulty relating certain aspects of the program to their own experience.   Those who had a positive experience reported Program Facilitators who met with them individually and modified the program to their experience and understanding.  
  • CSC provides very little programming for offenders outside of formal correctional programs.  Many expressed a desire to have life skills programming focussed on the needs of young adults (i.e. resume building, job searching, budgeting, parenting, meal preparation, etc.).    
  • There is a lack of consistent and meaningful support for young adults within federal institutions.  Many young adults reported meeting with their Institutional Parole Officer, on average, once every two months, despite the fact that many would be released within the next six months on statutory release. 
  • Young adults are over-represented in admissions to segregation and in use of force incidents, particularly young Indigenous offenders.
  • There is a significant young Indigenous population in the Prairie region, many of whom are gang affiliated.  CSC lacks a comprehensive national gang disaffiliation strategy responsive to Indigenous offenders.   


The report makes 20 recommendations.  One recommendation was made by the Advocate’s Office and another was jointly supported by both offices.  Among others, the recommendations include the following:

  • The Ontario Provincial Advocate for Children and Youth recommends that this report be shared with provincial/territorial counterparts, including Ministries responsible for community safety and correctional services and child and youth services in order to identify gaps and opportunities for improvement of provincial/territorial services.
  • The Correctional Investigator recommends that federal corrections implement a presumptive prohibition on the use of administrative segregation for young adults under the age of 21.  This presumptive prohibition should be incorporated into law.
  • The Correctional Investigator recommends that some institutional and community Parole Officers, with a special aptitude and interest for working with young adults, be specially trained as youth care counsellors. 
  • The Correctional Investigator recommends that CSC develop a separate Commissioner’s Directive specific to young adult offenders which ensures that the specific needs and interests of this group, including racialized young adults, are identified and met.
  • We recommend that the current study be brought forward to the Federal-Provincial-Territorial Ministers Responsible for Justice and Public Safety for review and consideration.