When Gordon Cruse worked full-time as a supervisor at the Victoria Youth Custody Centre, he met a boy who was nine years old.
The boy was there because he and an eight-year-old friend stole a coffee van and drove it to school, passing out goodies to their friends. Most of his early years were later spent in and out of juvie until the age of 17.
When Cruse asked the boy about his family life, he described himself as the referee between his parents and siblings.
“You can just imagine what was going on in that family,” said Cruse, noting many youth who wind up in juvie have a troubled life, but are from all levels of society.
“It was street people to the sons and daughters of CEO’s of international companies…All of them have a twisted value system perhaps or an abuse history.”
Cruse built a rapport with many of the youth during his 30 years at the Victoria Youth Custody Centre, and in 2006, he published his first book, Juvie: Inside Canada’s Youth Jails, which has become a required reading for students of Camosun College’s criminal justice program.
Now the 74-year-old Victoria resident has released a second book, Handcuffed by History, which tracks the lives of 11 former young offenders over nearly four decades and highlights what they see when they reflect on their journey through adolescence in turbulent times.
The experience of interviewing the former young offenders was an eye-opener for Cruse, who’s known some of them for 40 years. Many diminished their criminal behaviour as a mistaken part of their lives and have now become productive members of society. For some, however, that took a while to achieve.
Some offenders dropped their criminal ways right after juvie, maybe coming back once or twice. At least four got BAs with majors in psychology, and others straightened up once they had a child. Some are still in jail, struggling to shed their life of crime and 40 kids Cruse personally knew died from violence, drug overdoses, suicides or natural causes. One man Cruse interviewed was 36 when he finally decided to pull the plug on his criminal lifestyle.
“I asked him why and he said because he got really tired of the lifestyle. He got tired of somebody telling him when he was in jail when he could go to his room, when he could watch TV and when he could go to the bathroom,” said Cruse, noting some of the men he interviewed are now in their 50s. “The best part of that job was seeing those kids realize how they are and blossom in a good direction.”
Throughout the interviews, Cruse noted another common theme — many offenders said the worst thing was that social workers didn’t have any time for them due to the enormous workload — a trend that continues today.
The book’s forward is written by Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond, the B.C. representative for children and youth. In it, Turpel-Lafond notes people such as Cruse were “scattered like leaves” when the provincial government largely shuttered the youth custody facility in 2014 for cost-saving reasons.
Today, youth from up and down the Island are flown into a “kiddie con air program” to Burnaby Youth Custody Centre, wrote Turpel-Lafond, and are often unable to form the kind of relationships Cruse established.
Nonetheless, Cruse hopes those who read the book will learn there is hope for everyone and will be left feeling inspired.
“You think maybe societal attitudes towards young offenders is lock them up, throw away the key, that’s it goodbye. You would be surprised at how many young offenders, men and women, are all around us,” said Cruse, noting many of them work in the trades.
“I wanted to share some of their insights about raising kids, what to watch for that might be leading to crime, how they feel about the justice system, what were the good and bad things about being in juvie, what they learned from that situation and what stopped them from doing crime. Their insights are pretty interesting.”
Handcuffed by History: Young Offenders After Juvie, will be launched at 2 p.m. on Saturday, Feb. 4 at the Imagine Studio Cafe in James Bay at 31 Erie St. Proceeds from book sales provide bursaries to Camosun students in memory of Reena Virk and Kimberly Proctor.