North

Nunavut jail's carving program helps inmates handle stress, build life skills

An Inuit carving program founded at the Baffin Correctional Centre 30 years ago now has a new life and a new home at the Makigiarvik facility next door.

'When I'm carving ... I wish I was out there out on the land or on the floe edge'

One inmate says he imagines being out on the land or at the floe edge and the animals he would see when he is carving in the program at the Iqaluit jail. (Jane Sponagle/CBC)

A glass and metal display case gleams under fluorescent lights. Pale and dark greens swirl through the owl, inukshuk and polar bear soapstone carvings that line the shelves.

On this Friday afternoon, shoppers are huddled around the case, inspecting the carvings. Sales seem brisk.

But this isn't a Toronto art gallery or even an Iqaluit souvenir shop. This is the lobby of Makigiarvik, Iqaluit's new minimum security jail.

The artworks on display are made by inmates living on the other side of the metal doors just a few feet from the case, as part of the jail's carving program.

It began when the Baffin Correctional Centre opened in the mid-1980s, but more recently, it was stopping and starting due to renovations and security concerns. Now it has a new life and a new home at the Makigiarvik facility next door.

Friday afternoons are when the public can buy carvings.

Inukshuks carved from soapstone by inmates at Iqaluit's Makigiarvik minimum security jail. (Jane Sponagle/CBC)

'I want my culture to be alive'

The program allows up to five inmates at a time to carve in the recreation yard using grinders and files. On this day, a few inukshuks and a man pushing a qamutik are being shaped from soapstone.

One inmate, who has been in the carving program for eight months, says he finds carving helps him handle the stress of isolation. He was a part-time carver before jail — now he's in his late 40s and doesn't know when he'll get out. CBC agreed not to identify inmates.

"When I'm carving, in my mind, I think I wish I was out there out on the land or on the floe edge where there's animals. I vision that while carving, wishing I was out there," he said.

That's where he gets his inspiration — remembering the Arctic animals he's seen beyond the walls and fences of the jail.

He says it also helps him stay connected to his culture. In the facility, the majority of inmates are Inuit.

A spokesperson for the department of justice says inmates have to take regular programs, such as alternatives to violence, substance abuse programs or education, before being enrolled in the carving program. (Jane Sponagle/CBC)

"We're practising our culture; carving is our Inuit culture. It's part of what our forefathers did and it was passed on to us," he said.

"I want my culture to be alive. I want to pass it on to younger generations, too. More and more young people I think are not practising as much as they would have."

Another part of the program's appeal is the chance to sell the artwork each week. Eighty per cent of the sales' proceeds go back to the carver, who can then send the money home.

He says he sends money to family to help with groceries.

"It makes me feel good," he said. "It helps me, even just being here, knowing that they have something to eat for the next day or two."

'Therapeutic time'

Selling carvings is not all about the money, as a justice department spokesperson says it also helps build positive social skills.

"These guys are able to produce some beautiful pieces of art but if we want to talk about being a life skills program, we want to include the skills that include selling," said Chris Stewart, manager of capital and special projects.

Chris Stewart, manager of capital and special projects for Nunavut's Department of Justice, says the carving program is a 'therapeutic time' for many inmates, and helps build life skills. (Jane Sponagle/CBC)

"So when appropriate, we do have the carvers come up and take part in the sale."

Stewart says inmates have to take regular programs, such as alternatives to violence, substance abuse programs or education, before being enrolled in the carving program.

"We know that they really enjoy their time when carving and ... it's a therapeutic time," he said.

"If they are enrolled in other programs and they're carving in the mornings, they're coming into those programs in the afternoon and they're feeling good about themselves and able to deal with their needs."

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