'It's all a big hoax': Jail offers no chance of redemption, says former inmate

'The justice system — I don’t believe in it. It’s all a big hoax,' says an Indigenous former inmate of the N.W.T.'s correctional system. 'That's the way I look at it because they’re supposed to help people and they’re not.'

'That's the way I look at it because they’re supposed to help people and they’re not'

The hallway inside the North Slave Correctional Centre in Yellowknife. One man who's spent a lot of time there says he's had little opportunity for rehabilitation. (Pat Kane)

"The justice system — I don't believe in it. It's all a big hoax," says a former inmate of the N.W.T.'s correctional system. "That's the way I look at it because they're supposed to help people and they're not."

Now in his late 40s, the Indigenous man first went to jail for four months on a charge of drinking and driving. Upon release, he began racking up more charges — including assault and sexual assault — that ultimately sent him to jail at least 15 more times over the last three decades.

CBC has agreed not to identify him.

Newly released from one of the N.W.T.'s correctional centres, he says the corrections system doesn't do enough to "correct" the inmates it's supposed to help fit back into society.

"When I went to prison, I lost my apartment, so I lost everything," he said. "I was out of work… Now when I got out I had nowhere to go, nowhere to live, no money, nothing.  And this is just recently."

And, he says, he's not alone.

An inmate at the North Slave Correctional Centre (not the one quoted in this article) examines a painting. (Pat Kane)

In 2014, Indigenous people made up 88 per cent of the jail population in the Northwest Territories, according to Statistics Canada. Indigenous people make up just over half of the territory's population.

"They're just sending them [inmates] back to their home community without help to set up for counselling sessions or anything like that.

"You're back to where you began. Where the drinking starts and stuff like that. They're not pointing you in the direction for any support or any help. They're just kicking you out and you're done."

Remand for over a year

Part of the problem is remand — when inmates are held in jail while waiting for their trials.

The former inmate has served four stints in remand, the longest lasting 368 days.

"The justice system... it doesn't work with you when you are on remand," the former inmate said. "Because when you are on remand status, you don't have no rights to programs or anything."

A cell inside the North Slave Correctional Centre. (Pat Kane)

Sentenced inmates get priority for programs, such as rehabilitation and skills training.

In 2014, there were 440 people held in remand in the N.W.T., compared to 374 sentenced inmates in the territory.

Parker Kennedy, the territory's director of corrections, says those on remand do have access to programs but sometimes their time in custody is unpredictable. 

"Because we just don't know how long they're gonna be with us. So it must be frustrating for some who are there longer than others, but we look at our averages and we try to do the best we can with each offender."

Short sentences failing inmates

Inmates serving shorter sentences also miss out on programming.

According to Kennedy, the average inmate spends 77 days in jail. The average stay for people in remand is 53 days.

An auditor general's report on the N.W.T. corrections system last spring looked at 240 inmates who served sentences of less than 120 days.

According to Parker Kennedy, the N.W.T.'s director of corrections, says the average inmate spends 77 days in jail. (Curtis Mandeville/CBC)

In all those cases, none of the inmates had been assessed to determine reasons for their criminal behaviour, literacy levels, or intellectual functioning — information that could have been useful to develop plans for programming and rehabilitation.

The report also found that only 36 per cent of those inmates took a rehabilitation program like alcoholics anonymous and life skills. None of them accessed offence-specific programming.

Programs are normally held in groups led by a facilitator, the former inmate said, adding that the group format is helpful if you know the people taking it, because you can trust them.

He said often guys serving shorter sentences have a tougher time. They are more likely to be angry, confused, and frustrated.

"It's because, when you first get thrown in jail, a lot of the things are taken away from you. ....It's not only hard for the young guys going into the prison system that are doing three, four months, it affects everybody.

"It just escalates into anger issues and fights and problems."   

More short-term programming needed

Caroline Wawzonek, a criminal defence lawyer who's been practising law in the territory for the last decade, has a similar view.

"If you are hoping ... sending someone away and locking them up and putting them in an institution is going to make them a better person, well then, 20 days is probably just enough to get them institutionalized but not necessarily enough to do anything good with it," she said.

Caroline Wawzonek is a criminal lawyer in Yellowknife. (Curtis Mandeville/CBC)

Wawzonek said there is still a problem for people that do not have access to short-term programming.  And there is still a shortage of offender-specific programming.

"Without those two things we are not going to accomplish any type of rehabilitation inside the correctional institution.  And we're kidding ourselves if we think otherwise."

Chores, crafts and gym time

The former inmate said he tried to keep himself busy by doing daily chores, craft work, and getting in some gym time.

But he would like to see work skills programming offered along with rehabilitation programs so that inmates can use those skills to get a job when they are released back into their communities. He said work skills programming should also be available to sentenced inmates.

Lydia Bardak of the John Howard Society says helping inmates get their Grade 12 education, a first aid certificate or basic driver education would better prepare them for employment. (Curtis Mandeville/CBC)

Helping inmates achieve their Grade 12 education, complete a first aid certificate or basic driver education would better prepare them for employment, said Lydia Bardak of the John Howard Society.

She also said "using probation, having community supervision, so that there's a gradual re-entry into the community with supports and supervision and guidance," may be effective to reduce repeat offending rates.

"It's just really critical we're addressing those needs because if somebody just comes out of a sentence unsupervised not accustomed to making decisions they don't always make good decisions."

Bardak said addressing the underlying issues will result in less Indigenous people in the correctional system. That means investing in things like early intervention, crime prevention, healing programs and housing.

"I always say we have enough money. We're just not always investing it in the right places."

'Does it always happen? No it doesn't'

The government is aware of some of the shortcomings in the territory's jails.

"We want to see everybody succeed when they leave our correctional facility," Kennedy said. "That's our goal.... Does it always happen? No it doesn't."

Canada's auditor general released a report last March that found short-term inmates in the N.W.T. aren't receiving treatment targeted at the offence they committed. Kennedy said his department is responding to that report in part by making sure that all inmates who are on remand or serving short sentences have a case manager, who works specifically with them.

A basketball court at the North Slave Correctional Centre. (Pat Kane)

The department is also moving towards modular programming — programming that begins in jail but can continue once the inmate is released.

"It has become a situation where we finally realized after a number of reviews that programming that is offered within a correctional facility, while you're in custody, needs to also be carried on into the community once you are released," Kennedy said.

"I truly believe it needs to be a community effort."

'There are ways of looking at justice differently'

Wawzonek agrees.

She wants to engage Indigenous governments and communities to see how they would like the justice system run in their communities. 

"There's Cree courts in Saskatchewan. There's Indigenous courts in British Columbia. There's circle sentencings in the Yukon. So there are ways of looking at justice differently," she said.

"And I think that's when we are going to see some real change; is when the communities themselves can become engaged and take ownership of the justice system as their justice system."