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Justice Minister defends programming at N.W.T. jails

An official with the Corrections Service of Canada said the federal agency does not allow prisoners who require rehabilitative programming to finish their sentences in the N.W.T. because the programming is not available here.

Corrections Canada doesn't allow inmates needing rehabilitation programs to serve sentences in northern jails

N.W.T. Justice Minister Caroline Wawzonek says corrections is one of her top priorities as minister. (Randall McKenzie/CBC)

An official with the Corrections Service of Canada said the federal agency does not allow prisoners who require rehabilitative programming to finish their sentences in the N.W.T. because the programming is not available here.

"The only [federal] offenders we can keep incarcerated in NSCC [North Slave Correctional Complex] are the ones that don't require any programming," said parole officer Rebecca Austin while being questioned during a long-term offender hearing on Tuesday.

Inmates at the jail have long complained about the lack of rehabilitative programming.

Two years ago they mounted a letter writing campaign about it. When senior corrections officials refuted the claims, staff at the jail said the inmates were giving a more honest picture of the programming available than the corrections officials.

In a 2015 report, the Auditor General of Canada said the programming at both NSCC and the South Mackenzie Correctional Complex in Hay River were inadequate. During the past year, CBC News has spoken to a number of inmates at NSCC who say there is little in the way of meaningful programming available to them.

Corrections a priority, says minister

The territory's Minister of Justice said, working as a defence lawyer prior to entering politics, she heard the same complaints, but things are improving.

"Ten years ago, when I was very much involved, I definitely heard things," said Caroline Wawzonek. "And then, even before I entered this new world and was still in criminal defence, I was seeing that there were changes that were happening, access to programs was starting to improve."

Wawzonek points to the move to deliver programs in modules, allowing them to extend into the time after inmates leave jail. Probation officers deliver the programs on substance abuse, violence and relationships once the inmates are released.

Wawzonek said the shift to modules addresses one of the challenges of delivering meaningful programs in N.W.T jails — the shorter sentences inmates are serving. The department says the average sentence is 90 days.

That's not something that's going to happen overnight. That's a culture change in some ways.- Caroline Wawzonek, N.W.T. Justice Minister 

"If I were to pick two personal priorities, one is corrections and one is [crime] prevention," said Wawzonek. "Corrections doesn't just mean the programming, corrections means the people that are delivering all of these services at the front lines."

The government is looking at better ways to support those front-line workers, she said. 

"That's not something that's going to happen overnight. That's a culture change in some ways," she said. 

Later this year, the government plans to introduce a new suite of programs incorporating Northern and Indigenous culture.

New program for sex offenders

Wawzonek also noted the department is now delivering a territorial program specifically for sex offenders.

Sexual assault and sexual interference continue to plague the territory, causing untold psychological trauma for victims.

There are currently 121 charges of sexual assault and 64 charges of sexual interference before the courts in the Northwest Territories, though some of the accused are facing more than one crime of sexual violence.

The North Slave Correctional Complex is the biggest jail in the territory, but inmates, workers, and a federal parole officer say there is not serious programming there to rehabilitate offenders. (Walter Strong/CBC)

Corrections began delivering the new sex offender program last summer. According to the department, it consists of sessions "multiple times each week" for three months.

Prior to the introduction of the new territorial program, sex offenders were offered an old moderate intensity Corrections Services of Canada program, a program that federal parole officer Rebecca Austin said CSC would not recommend.

According to the department, during the 2018-19 fiscal year, four inmates took the program.

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