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Nunavut jail a risk to safety of inmates and staff: auditor general

'When you go in there, you really get the sights and sounds and, dare I say, the smells,' says assistant AG

March 11, 2015

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Nunavut jail a risk to safety of inmates and staff: auditor general  2:25
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Nunavut's largest jail puts the safety and security of inmates and staff at risk, according to a damning report released today by the auditor general of Canada. The report says Nunavut's Department of Justice has been aware of the problem without fixing it for almost 20 years.

In that time, the report notes, the Nunavut government has built a new healing facility in Rankin Inlet, and is about a open a new temporary facility, which has since become permanent, in Iqaluit for minimum security offenders.

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But the report says the government has failed to address its central problem: the aging Baffin Correctional Centre, which remains the territory's only maximum-security facility. It housed an average of 82 inmates in 2013-14, even though it only has the capacity for 68.

"I have to say, when you go in there, you really get the sights and sounds and, dare I say, the smells," said Assistant Auditor General Ronnie Campbell, who travelled to Iqaluit to present the report and its 17 recommendations to legislators today. 

The report echoes several previous reports on the notorious jail, including a 2013 report by the Office of the Correctional Investigator, which called the facility "nothing short of appalling" and said it should be shut down

The government has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to study the problem, including payment of $400,000 to a consultant over an 11-year period, the audit says, but the notorious jail still stands.  

"We were not provided with a documented rationale supporting the approach the department took," the report notes.

In 2009, Nunavut officials under then justice minister Keith Peterson requested $300,000 to study a possible replacement for the jail. 

Assistant Auditor General Ronnie Campbell and Maria Pooley appear at a press conference in Iqaluit following the tabling of the auditor general's report on corrections in Nunavut. (Jane Sponagle/CBC)

Iqaluit West MLA Paul Okalik — who, prior to his latest posting, served as the territory's premier and justice minister from 1999 to 2008 — moved a successful motion to scrap the request, saying a community learning centre was a higher priority.

Nunavut's 'cardboard prison'

Defence lawyer James Morton, who calls BCC Nunavut's "cardboard prison," says the walls in some areas are paper thin, with cells built for two holding five or six people, and snowdrifts in the yard that regularly limit inmates' access to fresh air.

"Being inside all the time is unhealthy and claustrophobic and frankly, makes it harder for the guards as well," Morton says.

Morton says an argument could be made that the overcrowding amounts to cruel and unusual punishment. That's an assessment Nunavut's deputy minister of justice, Elizabeth Sanderson, appears to agree with, according to a memo obtained by The Canadian Press.

The auditor general's report notes that inmates at the jail are not getting the mental health services they need, and few inmates had access to rehabilitative programs recommended to help with issues such as anger management and substance abuse.

The report also found key steps were missing when it came to "administrative segregation" or isolation.

In seven cases of inmates who spent 10 or more days in isolation, there was no evidence that weekly reviews of the isolation had taken place. 

'I'm kinda going crazy in here'

Inmate Iola Lucassie, who says he's being held in administrative segregation, says tensions inside the jail are reaching a boiling point.

"I'm kinda going crazy in here man, my head's starting to feel like it's being controlled by something or someone else now, it's pounding all the time, it's hurting and sometimes I can't think right.

"When you are there for 13 months straight with no contact with the civilized world or anything, just you yourself, it starts to bother you. It starts to play with your emotions. It just builds and builds and builds," Lucassie says. 

"It's been really hard for me just to try and maintain my composure."

The territorial government has earmarked $850,000 for repairs to the facility.

The Department of Justice estimates that it would cost about $8.8 million to bring the jail into compliance with the National Fire Code and other safety codes, according to the auditor general. 

With files from The Canadian Press
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