Security flaws at Yellowknife jail put everyone at risk, say whistleblowers

Security flaws in the fencing of Yellowknife's jail have not been addressed in recently announced upgrades, despite contraband being smuggled into the jail multiple times, CBC News has learned.

Flaws were used to smuggle contraband into jail multiple times since March, say employees

The vulnerable fencing at the back of the North Slave Correctional Complex. Employees allege that contraband has been smuggled into the jail multiple times in the last several months by people climbing the fence, passing it to inmates in the enclosed exercise yard, and then climbing back over the fence. (Garrett Hinchey/CBC)

Security flaws in the fencing of Yellowknife's jail have not been addressed in recently announced upgrades, despite being used multiple times in the last several months for smuggling contraband into the jail, CBC News has learned.

Multiple employees at the North Slave Correctional Complex independently brought the flaws to CBC's attention, citing fear for the safety of inmates and staff. They say jail officials have known about the flaws for years.

CBC has agreed not to identify the employees out of fear of reprisal.

The employees' concerns centre around the "school fence" that surrounds the building, in particular on the Kam Lake side of the complex away from the front office.

While the fencing around the newest additions to the jail and the courtyard are security fences, the employees say, the fence in this area has no security features such as electric current or razor wire. 

At least twice since the beginning of March, the employees allege, someone outside the jail has scaled the fence and gone to one of the exercise yards within the facility — which are separated from the outside by a second fence-like wall — and passed contraband inside to inmates.

The employees say corrections officers were only made aware of the breaches after the fact, by spotting footprints in the snow surrounding the jail.

The red circle on this satellite image shows the location of an exercise yard within the facility. Employees allege a fence surrounding the yard is a security hazard, because people can easily scale it and pass contraband to inmates. (Google Maps)

'Band-aid solution'

The employees expressed concerns that weapons could be smuggled into the jail in the same fashion as the contraband brought in in recent months, putting the safety of those in the complex at risk.

According to one employee, the only safeguards put into place to counteract the recent breaches was to restrict access hours for the exercise yards closest to the fence.

One characterized the response as a "lack of regard for glaring safety and security issues" and a "band-aid solution."

The employees say the security flaw has been raised for years with officials at the jail and the Justice department, with no concrete solution proposed.

"You just almost get tired of bringing it up," one said.

The security flaws at the jail received increased public scrutiny in late 2016, following an escape by inmate Denecho King that triggered a three-day manhunt. 

In a 2016 news release, the Justice department said King exploited a "pre-existing gap in the physical security" of the jail to get to the roof during his escape. The department promised security upgrades to address the problem.

However, according to the employees, the upgrades ultimately undertaken by the department, which began last week, focus exclusively on eliminating rooftop access, and not upgrades to the fencing.

The employees suggested to CBC that a short-term solution could be adding razor wire to the vulnerable fence while a more permanent solution is found. This, they said, would have delayed King's escape long enough for him to be apprehended.

"He wouldn't have got off the property," one employee said. "We would have intercepted him still on our property."

Justice can't discuss security projects

In 2017, Justice Minister Louis Sebert said in the Legislative Assembly that the upgrades had become "more complex and expensive" than the department anticipated. 

The government ultimately went through multiple designs of the upgrades after contractors were unable to complete their initial requests to their specification and within their budget.

Justice Minister Louis Sebert, centre, and his deputy minister Martin Goldney, left, during the discussion of fencing in February of 2017. At the time, Sebert specifically mentioned upgrades to the fence, though employees say none have been undertaken. (CBC)

In his 2017 address to the assembly, Sebert referenced the jail's fencing multiple times, including quoting Robert Frost by saying "good fences make good neighbours."

In the 2018/2019 capital estimates for the department, two projects are listed for the North Slave Correctional Complex. One is titled "Human Machine Interface/Harding Replacement and associated electronic equipment," while the other is titled "Programming, Commissioning and integration of new Building Security Control System." 

Department of Justice spokesperson Ngan Trinh said the department was unable to provide additional detail on the proposed projects, due to safety concerns.

As of Monday morning, nobody from the Department of Justice was able to speak with CBC in regards to the specific flaws. However, Trinh said in an email that "the Department of Justice continually reviews security requirements at our facilities to ensure they meet operational requirements."

"While we cannot speak publicly about the security enhancements being undertaken, we can say that the department is continually upgrading safety and security at the facility through a combination of physical, electronic and operational measures," she said.

About the Author

Garrett Hinchey

Copy Editor/Reporter

Garrett Hinchey is a Métis journalist based in his hometown of Yellowknife, Northwest Territories, where has worked since 2014. He has worked as CBC North's social media editor, copy editor, and as a multimedia reporter, and produced CBC's coverage of the 2019 N.W.T. election.