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Fence flaws at Yellowknife jail known before 2016 inmate escape, says warden

Officials with the N.W.T.'s Justice department say that they've been aware of a security flaw in the Yellowknife jail's fencing since before a prisoner escaped in 2016. They say more security work is planned for the summer.

Warden at North Slave Correctional Complex says 'protocols in place' to mitigate contraband risk

The vulnerable fencing at the back of the North Slave Correctional Complex. Multiple employees allege that contraband has been smuggled into the jail multiple times in the last several months by people climbing the fence, passing it to inmates in the enclosed exercise yard. (Garrett Hinchey/CBC)

Officials with the Northwest Territories' Justice department say that they've been aware of a security flaw in the Yellowknife jail's fencing since before the 2016 escape of Denecho King, and that additional work to upgrade the facility is planned for this summer.

Multiple employees at the North Slave Correctional Complex independently approached CBC News last week with concerns about a section of fencing at the jail, citing fear for the safety of inmates and staff.

CBC has agreed not to identify the employees due to fear of reprisal.

Their main concerns are around fencing on the back side of the jail near an exercise yard. The fencing has no security features, and employees say people have climbed the fence, walked to the exercise yard, and passed contraband to inmates.

The employees approached CBC with their concerns after work on the jail, aimed to address the issues brought to light by the inmate escape, did not include security upgrades like electric current or razor wires to the fencing, they say. King climbed the fence during his escape.

'An occurrence' before the escape

​John Nahanni, the warden at the North Slave Correctional Complex, said that there was "an occurrence" involving the fence prior to King's escape, and the department has been aware of the problem since then.

"We're aware there's a concern, and we're managing it," he said. 

"I can't speak specifically to the security we do have, just because that will jeopardize our security. But what we do have ... we're able to manage risk."

The red circle in this satellite image of the North Slave Correctional Complex shows the location where whistleblowers say contraband is easily transferred to inmates. (Google Maps)

Kim Schofield, the assistant deputy minister (solicitor general) for the Department of Justice, said that the decision was made to focus on other aspects of King's escape in the ongoing upgrades.

King was able to make his way onto the roof of the building from a courtyard in the facility campus.

"The thought on that was that if we fixed the primary containment area ... there wouldn't have been a need to deal with the scaling of the fence," Schofield said.

"I do understand that it has been identified by staff that this is an area where contraband is possibly getting in to the secure exercise yard. Staff are to be screening that area prior to inmates going out, they're to screen that area when inmates leave, and inmates are then searched prior to entering the facility.

"Those are some mechanisms that are put in place to deal with and mitigate the security flaw."

More work set for summer

Both Schofield and Nahanni pointed out that contraband finds its way into the jail in many ways, and that no solution would completely stop the flow of illicit items, such as drugs and cellphones, into the facility entirely.

"I think we would be concerned if we don't intercept contraband," Schofield said. "Because we know it's coming in. People will find innovative ways."

Doug King, a professor of justice studies at Mount Royal University in Calgary, said that the issues surrounding contraband "have been a problem that has existed ever since there have been prisons.

Doug King is a justice studies professor at Mount Royal University in Calgary. He says that although it's impossible to stop the flow of contraband into a jail, 'it isn't unreasonable' for the warden to give a timeline on how the fencing issue will be addressed, now that it has been identified. (Francois Joly/Radio-Canada)

"One of the things we should avoid assuming is that we can make a prison airtight," said King.

King said that although it's impossible to stop the flow of contraband into a jail, "it isn't unreasonable" for the jail's warden to give a timeline on how the fencing issue will be addressed, now that it has been identified.

Citing concerns for security, neither Schofield nor Nahanni were able to give details on planned fixes for the fencing, nor if any work was specifically planned.

However, Nahanni said that "there are plans" to fix the issue, while Schofield said that there is another security upgrade project scheduled to take place this summer, expected to be completed by the end of August.

In the meantime, Nahanni said that there were "protocols in place" to manage the risk.

"The staff are well trained," Nahanni said. "The staff are really good at what they do."

About the Author

Garrett Hinchey

Social Media Editor/Reporter

Garrett Hinchey is a Métis journalist based in his hometown of Yellowknife, Northwest Territories, where he has worked as CBC North's social media editor and a multimedia reporter since late 2014.

With files from Lawrence Nayally