New jail for women in Fort Smith to have higher security rating, segregation

As a new building at the Fort Smith Correctional Complex is under construction, critics are questioning the need for a more secure facility.

Critics question the need for a more secure facility

A woman stands on a city sidewalk in winter.
Lydia Bardak, an advocate for inmates in the N.W.T., says the current minimum-security setup is better for women inmates in Fort Smith. (Andrew Pacey/CBC)

The jail for women in Fort Smith, N.W.T., doesn't look much like a jail.

The women's unit of the Fort Smith Correctional Complex consists of two, nondescript houses in a residential area. Those houses are not surrounded by a fence. There is no barbed wire. The doors don't even lock.

Renderings of spaces inside the new Fort Smith Correctional Complex, including the common area, ceremonial space and programs areas. (Submitted by the Government of the Northwest Territories)

But this custodial arrangement is set to change. The territorial justice department is building a new, and more secure, jail for women in Fort Smith.

To Northwest Territories inmate advocate Lydia Bardak, the minimum-security setup is preferable to the alternative.

"It's just been found over the years that women in custody do much better in a more home-like or cottage environment where they can take care of cooking their own meals and looking after themselves," she said. "Much better than in an institutional complex."

Most of the women incarcerated in the territory are living with trauma, mental illness and substance use issues, said Bardak. The vast majority are Indigenous.

"Just making a more comfortable environment helps them with their well-being," she said.

The $23.6-million women's medium-security facility is set to open this coming fall. It will have a perimeter fence, locks on the doors and a segregation unit.

The building, which is currently under construction, will share services with the Fort Smith Correctional Complex's men's unit.

New facility 'more efficient'

Housing all women inmates in one building is "more efficient," said Kim Schofield, the assistant deputy minister of justice (solicitor general), last month.

"They're currently running two buildings and it causes problems for staffing and supervision."

Schofield said the new jail could also allow more women who are handed sentences shorter than two years to serve their time inside the territory.

"Right now, when we get inmates that might have a higher risk level, we have to either house them in another facility in a secure cell, or we've had to send them south."

The current women's jail can hold up to 20 women. The new building will have capacity for 23.

Kim Schofield, assistant deputy minister of justice (solicitor general), says the new facility is safer and more efficient. (Randall McKenzie/CBC)

Another notable feature of the new facility is the segregation unit, which Schofield called a "calm unit." The area can be used to isolate an inmate with a medical issue or to confine a woman who needs a "time out."

But Bardak challenged its necessity.

"When we have so much evidence that shows that segregation exacerbates mental illness, why would we want to go in that direction?" she said. 

'Serious safety concerns' at existing facility

Schofield said a new correctional centre for women in the territory is a long time coming.

In 2015, the Office of the Auditor General delivered a searing review of the women's jail in Fort Smith. Auditors found "serious safety and security concerns that warrant the construction of a new facility."

Among their criticisms was that the jail didn't meet detention centre building codes, which require non-combustible construction and a sprinkler system.

That is why the jail's doors don't lock — so inmates can escape in the event of a fire.

In the last decade, at least two women have walked out of the jail in Fort Smith without permission. Both were returned.

Maybe what we need to be doing is fixing people rather than punishing them.- Peter Harte, Yellowknife criminal defence lawyer

To Bardak, who has spent time with women at the jail, the possibility of escape is not much of a concern. At least, it's not enough to warrant stricter security that could change the jail's group home-like atmosphere.

She said the women are a part of the Fort Smith community. They hand out candy on Halloween, they volunteer at community events, and some have taken classes at Aurora College.

"I remember hearing one of the ladies saying to another one that she really was enjoying this volunteering and hoped that she'd find opportunities to volunteer back home again," said Bardak, adding that community-oriented corrections can help women with their healing.

A floorplan of the new correctional complex shows the addition of a fence as the dotted line. (Submitted by the Government of the Northwest Territories)

Money better spent on treatment: lawyer

Defence lawyer Peter Harte questioned whether incarceration is the right way to rehabilitate women offenders.

Many women who find themselves in custody in Fort Smith "have problems that really aren't going to be dealt with in jail," he said. These women have a history of trauma, lack of education or lack of work opportunities, he said.

"So I'm not really clear that jail, strictly speaking, is required."

'It's a tragedy that you find somebody in the situation that he's in and nobody can do anything about it,' says Yellowknife lawyer Peter Harte. (CBC)

Harte said the millions of dollars put toward a new corrections facility in Fort Smith might have been better spent on counselling and addictions treatment.

"Unfortunately, we never really ask ourselves why we are putting people in jail," he said.

"Maybe what we need to be doing is fixing people rather than punishing them."