IQALUIT, Nunavut — The intake cell at what may be Canada’s most decrepit prison at one time offered all sorts of useful information.
Names on the walls would let you know who was inside. Tidbits such as “—- is a rat” might suggest who couldn’t be trusted.
And the sentence once carved into the door was probably the most succinct orientation new prisoners ever received to Nunavut’s notorious Baffin Correctional Centre in Iqaluit.
“It said, ‘Welcome to hell,'” recalled guard Susan Idlout. “When that door closes and you see that, you don’t feel so good.”
It’s all been removed by a $900,000 renovation that is cleaning up the prison’s pervasive mould, its broken fire sprinklers, its punched-out walls, its uncleanable bathrooms. A new building next door has eased overcrowding and prisoners no longer bunk down in the gym.
“It was pretty gross walking in there in the morning,” said director of corrections JP Deroy. “Thirty men and no bathroom.”
But a federal auditor general’s report released in March remains harshly critical of corrections in Nunavut.
“The Department of Justice has not met its key responsibilities for inmates within the correctional system,” it concludes.
That assessment was echoed by an email from a senior Nunavut bureaucrat to Justice Minister Paul Okalik earlier this year. Deputy justice minister Elizabeth Sanderson wrote: “Nunavut is likely in significant breach of constitutional obligations towards remanded accused and inmates … and faces a high risk of civil liability towards inmates, staff and members of the public.”
A walk with Deroy through the battered building known unaffectionately as BCC reveals why, in 2013, a federal investigator said it was unsafe for inmates and staff.
Built for 68 minimum-security prisoners, it has averaged more than 80 and up to 115 at any one time, from all security levels, including remand. That kind of overcrowding, with six prisoners in nine square metres of cell, wears on a building.
Vandalized sprinkler heads allowed water to seep into walls. Floors around overused toilets were constantly damp. Mould was everywhere. So was the odour of mildew.
Holes in hallway walls attest to too many men in too small a space with too much anger.
“The wall is an easy target,” said Deroy.
In one still-used cell, heat registers were falling off the wall and ceiling tiles were dropping. A patched hole that had been chipped through the wall once allowed the passage of drugs and money to other cells.
Because BCC wasn’t built to maximum-security standards, holes are common. The outside of the building is pocked with metal plates sealing off passageways punched through by prisoners.
Deroy tells of one inmate opening a ceiling-light fixture, sneaking through the ducting and breaking into the prison canteen.
The toll overcrowding has taken on the building is nothing compared to its toll on inmates. With no space to segregate the dangerous prisoners from the rest, violence has been common.
Auditor general Michael Ferguson noted that physical assaults on inmates, staff or visitors more than tripled to 185 between 2002 and 2012. A carving program in the prison yard was cancelled years ago because participants were being forced to mule contraband.
“Some of the carvers got beat up pretty good,” said Idlout.
Space for education is makeshift. With no room to do much other than warehouse inmates, little programming is conducted.
The auditor general found that out of 24 inmates surveyed, none had case plans designed to guide their rehabilitation. Only one-third of prisoners needing mental services had access to them.
Nor is the overcrowding good for Nunavut communities. Deroy said judges know what BCC is like and, if they can, sentence accordingly.
“You often see people on probation that if they were down south, they would be sentenced to custody.
“If we had one wish as to what we would need, we’d ask for space. We need space.”
Things are improving. New paint and renovations mean the place no longer smells like a damp dishtowel.
An adjacent 48-bed, minimum-security facility called Makigiarvik that opened in March is easing some of the overcrowding. So is a new 48-bed minimum- and medium-security prison in Rankin Inlet.
Deroy hopes the new facilities will help keep numbers in the old building down to about 60.
“We’re able to separate our groups,” he said. “It actually allows us to work more closely with the offenders and do the programming that we want to do.”
Makigiarvik, a $16-million bright, fresh place with a proper classroom and high ceilings, gives Deroy a carrot to motivate offenders to good behaviour.
And it gives him a little peace of mind.
“When we didn’t have this building, you go to bed at night thinking, ‘Is this the night you’re going to get a call that something major is happening?’ I sleep a little better now.”
Still, the auditor general says Nunavut has a way to go.
Even with the new facilities, he predicted Nunavut will be short 70 prison beds within the next decade. And there’s still no maximum-security space.
“The Department of Justice should acquire sufficient maximum-security beds and also ensure that medium-security inmates and those on remand are properly housed,” the report says.
The territorial government has provided an official response: “The Corrections Division recognizes the need for maximum-security beds and that currently the territory’s maximum-security needs are not being met. In conjunction with other government departments we are exploring further funding options to address our capacity needs.”
A “business case” for a maximum-security facility is being prepared, the response says.
Deroy said the offenders under his charge deserve at least that much.
“These people that are with us, they come from our families. They come from our communities.
“They’re our people.”
Follow Bob Weber on Twitter at @row1960
Bob Weber, The Canadian Press
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