Inmates at the North Slave Correctional Complex in Yellowknife have mounted an "unprecedented" letter-writing campaign. They're asking for better opportunities to improve themselves while incarcerated, and access to a large jail yard for recreation that's been closed for more than a year.

Dozens of inmates wrote and signed letters to MLAs and the justice minister on Friday describing their time in the facility as more akin to being warehoused than rehabilitated or prepared for reintegration with society outside jail walls.

Prisoners say educational, career-training, cultural and recreational opportunities have diminished, especially since the closure of a large outside yard more than one year ago. Other complaints of reduced education programing and what inmates describe as overpriced long-distance phone calls and canteen offerings are consistent throughout most of the letters.

NSCC prisoner letter

One of more than two dozen letters written by inmates at Yellowknife's North Slave Correctional Complex, asking for improved education opportunities and living conditions. This letter was addressed to Tom Beaulieu, MLA for the constituency of Tu Nedhé-Wiilideh. (Walter Strong/CBC)

"Im in NSCC [North Slave Correctional Complex] rite now, we have no program's, no recreation officer, all we do is sit in the Pod and do nothing," one prisoner wrote.

"We got a big yard there for nothing, they won't let us out of this building."

A prisoner in Iqaluit's Baffin Correctional Centre blamed excessive idle time as a major factor in a riot he said he and three other prisoners started in the jail at the end of September.

Indigenous prisoners also say they have no access to traditional healing ceremonies like drumming or "sweats," even though every day, they can see the large outdoor yard where these types of ceremonies were practised previously.

"I want to learn my tradition and to practise my tradition but don't have access to drumming or smudging," another letter writer stated.

The large yard described by prisoners has indeed been closed to prisoner access for 14 months, after a prisoner escaped in 2016. It was closed for still-incomplete security enhancements.

"Some of the cultural components of the program that were previously offered in that yard ... we've had to move indoors," said Martin Goldney, deputy minister of justice.

"We haven't been able to do things like sweats as a result."

Goldney said jail-yard security modifications were delayed because of a procurement holdup. He expects the yard to be reopened to prisoners in the coming months, although he could not say exactly when. In the meantime, a full-time traditional advisor remains on staff, and the jail brings in Indigenous advisors and elders.

As for complaints about a lack of opportunities, Goldney said there are more opportunities than ever at the facility.

Martin Goldney

Deputy justice minister Martin Goldney defends programming at the North Slave correctional facility against inmate accusations that it has declined. (CBC)

"We do feel that supports and programs are improving at the centre," Goldney said.

"It's not at all accurate to suggest that programs have been diminished or programs have been cut, or opportunities for inmates to better themselves have been lessened."

Saying the facility offers more programs "than at any time in the institution's history," Goldney pointed to increased numbers of inmates who have successfully completed programming like adult literacy, substance abuse management, violence prevention and respectful relationship programs.

He did say one thing inmates can no longer achieve while incarcerated — despite the presence of a teacher at the facility — is certified high school equivalency, or GED (General Educational Development) certification. That program is on hold, he said, until a new partner for delivering the program can be found.

'Complaints from inmates aren't uncommon'

Prisoners also noted the jail previously had a recreation officer and that since the position was cut, they've seen a decrease in quality of recreation.

Goldney said that while there was no longer a recreation officer at the jail, it was a misconstrual to describe the position as cut. Instead, he said correctional officers have been trained to deliver recreation opportunities for inmates.

"That's been an improvement," he said. "What we've done is re-profiled the duties of correctional officers. That builds a different kind of relationship outside the pod setting. [It] improves atmosphere."

Goldney said there's been a decrease in use-of-force incidents between inmates and guards since correctional officers took a role in the inmates' recreational lives.

Inmates also complained about the cost of making long-distance phone calls to family. They are charged 12 cents per minute, a charge Goldney said is justified by the cost incurred by the jail to provide long-distance telephone service through Northwestel.

"We think it's an appropriate charge ... recognizing that inmate contact with families and supports is always important, but we don't see that as a significant barrier for inmates."

Goldney said the letter-writing campaign was "unprecedented," but perhaps at its root not surprising, given the circumstances inmates find themselves in.

"It's important to recognize that complaints from inmates aren't uncommon," Goldney said. "I don't say that to dismiss any complaints — we are going to be looking at each of the issues raised. But correctional facilities are designed to limit and restrict liberties … so we often do see frustrations from inmates as a result."

In any case, officials at the facility are acting on the complaints, Goldney said.

"The warden is talking to inmates now as a result of this unprecedented letter campaign to get a better understanding of what the mood is now and what might be driving some of that."

Northern News Services has reported that Daniel Gillis, a Yellowknife man serving time at the North Slave Correctional Complex for sexual assault, played a role in the prisoner letter writing campaign. CBC was unable to arrange an interview with Gillis to confirm his role.

With files from Richard Gleeson