Contraband smuggling at Nunavut jail means no fresh air for prisoners
“I haven't been outside for fresh air in about two-and-a-half months now”
The Government of Nunavut has known for at least the past year that it is “likely in significant breach of constitutional obligations” towards inmates housed at Iqaluit’s infamously squalid prison, the Baffin Correctional Centre.
But experts say inmates’ constitutional rights continue to be violated.
“I haven’t been outside for fresh air in about two-and-a-half months now,” an inmate recently told Nunatsiaq News.
The inmate’s identity has been withheld to protect him from potential backlash within the jail.
“Everybody needs fresh air, especially Inuit — it’s in our culture. We spend so much time outside. I’d stay outside 24-hours-a-day, if I could,” the inmate said.
Experts say that denying prisoners fresh air violates both the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms and the United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners — a 1957 declaration, signed by Canada, inspired by the fall of Nazi Germany and the Nuremberg Trials.
On Dec. 2, 2015, GN justice department officials Chris Stewart and Yvonne Niego led Nunatsiaq News through a tour of the facility.
“No air, no air,” some inmates called out during the tour.
“Need fresh air,” others echoed.
In a room reserved for in-person visits, someone has scrawled an inspirational message on the wall: Your thoughts create your life.
Stewart, capital and special projects manager for the department, denied that fresh air had been fully withheld.
“As far as we’re told, fresh air does still occur regularly. It doesn’t have set times because of the contraband issue. But I think it happens fairly regularly,” Stewart said Dec. 2.
Later, during the same tour, the deputy warden, Jamie LeBlanc, contradicted Stewart.
“It’s been a couple of weeks,” since inmates have had any fresh air, LeBlanc admitted.
Stewart said there’s a reason that outdoor exercise has been reduced: Guards have had to deal with rampant contraband smuggling seemingly facilitated by BCC’s poor design and ramshackle state.
LeBlanc then explained what seems to happen repeatedly.
While inmates walk around in the jail’s outdoor, fenced-in area, cars pull up, someone quickly exits the car, throws a bag over the pen’s high fence and then gets back into the car and drives off, LeBlanc said.
“The inmates were organized. They had zig-zag [walking] patterns worked out so that guards couldn’t see what happened to the bag,” LeBlanc said.
But efforts to deal with contraband flowing into the prison shouldn’t mean violating prisoners’ basic rights, experts say, especially since many of the inmates at BCC are in remand — legally innocent, awaiting trial.
Catherine Latimer, executive director of the John Howard Society — an advocacy group for male prisoners in Canada — told Nunatsiaq News that BCC has an obvious design flaw.
“You shouldn’t have a prison such that cars can pull up and drop things over the fence… They may need to place inmates’ opportunity for exercise outside away from the road, or they may need to move some guards to the roadside,” Latimer said in a recent interview.
Rule 23 of the UN standards for the treatment of prisoners says “every prisoner… shall have at least one hour of suitable exercise in the open air daily, if the weather permits.”
Serious consequences for inmates’ health can result when fresh air is denied and that can lead to tension between prisoners and guards, Latimer said.
Kim Pate, executive director of the Elizabeth Fry Society, a rights group for incarcerated women in Canada, said there’s a direct link between a prison’s level of contraband and inmates’ access to programming.
“All of the research shows that people are more likely to be looking for contraband when there’s nothing else to do in the prison… If you provide no avenue for fresh air, you tend to see tensions rise,” Pate said.
That’s the cycle that staff at the BCC seem to be stuck in: efforts to crack down on contraband actually create conditions for contraband to flourish.
A 2013 report by Canada’s prison watchdog agency, which called conditions at the facility “appalling,” noted that the contraband problem had reduced inmates’ participation in cultural programming aimed at rehabilitating inmates before their release into their communities.
Stewart said Dec. 2 that programming, such as carving and town crews, had been discontinued in order to staunch the flow of drugs into the prison.
This, coupled with frequent pat-downs and the constant rotation of inmates within the general population only add to inmates’ existing stress from being denied fresh air and programming, the BCC inmate said.
“It’s hard not to go crazy in here… The guards here look at you like you’re a dog. It’s not like that at other facilities,” said the inmate, who has spent time at a number of other prisons in Canada.
A defence lawyer who has been working in Nunavut for the past decade, James Morton, told Nunatsiaq News that staff at the BCC do the best they can within a “cardboard prison.”
“They really do try to make the best of it… they go out of their way to make it work,” said Morton, who regularly visits clients at BCC.
But Morton said there have been months-long periods in the recent past where inmates haven’t had access to fresh air, which creates a growing sense of resentment and frustration.
“Even for those in BCC following convictions, lack of fresh air arguably gets in the way of their rehabilitation. It puts everybody on edge and gets them angry. And the last thing we want to be generating [among inmates] is anger.”
That anger cuts both ways.
A March 2015 report from Canada’s auditor general pointed out that prison dynamics at the BCC have created a violent atmosphere for inmates and guards alike.
According to that report, assault rates among inmates and between inmates and staff tripled in the decade ending in 2013.
Just before the release of that report, a leaked memo from justice department deputy minister Elizabeth Sanderson, penned in January 2015, appeared in a Canadian Press story.
“In my opinion, the Government of Nunavut is likely in significant breach of constitutional obligations towards remanded accused and inmates house at the BCC,” Sanderson wrote.
Those breaches appear to continue, despite the justice department’s commitment to following all 20 recommendations put forth by the Auditor General’s 2015 report.
Stewart said Dec. 2 that the planning stage of a new maximum-security facility in Iqaluit will begin in the 2016-17 fiscal year, and is expected to break ground the following year.
But what that means for the treatment of inmates at BCC until that new facility opens is unclear.
We asked for the GN’s department of justice to respond to allegations that BCC inmates’ fresh air access had been restricted for months. They replied by email. Here, in part, is what a department spokesperson wrote:
“Recently inmates at BCC had a temporary restriction of fresh air time due to the increase in contraband activity. This restriction was temporary and has ended.
“Regular fresh air programming occurs at all of the Department of Justice’s correctional facilities. For security reasons, the Department cannot release the schedule and frequency of this activity.”
The written response also said the department is currently reviewing policies and laws around addressing inmates’ grievances.