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About 144 inmates currently reside at the North Slave Correctional Centre in Yellowknife. The facility has a capacity of 150. The number of aboriginal prisoners is estimated at 80 per cent, but officials admit that is a conservative statistic. - Kevin Allerston/NNSL photo

Life behind bars

North Slave Correctional Centre is the territory's largest jail, and it also offers the most programs

Nathalie Heiberg-Harrison
Northern News Services
Published Monday, December 12, 2011

The Conservative government's proposed tough-on-crime bill is likely to land more NWT offenders in jail, according to Justice Minister Glen Abernethy, and the territory's jails are at risk of becoming overcrowded.

Over the next four editions, News/North will take a closer look at the North's justice system in an attempt to answer the question: why are the jails so full in the first place?

Daytime activities at the territory's largest jail in Yellowknife, begins at 7 a.m. when its 140 or so inmates wake up for the day.

Their view is the inside of their cell - a one-or two-bed room with a desk, washroom and two windows, with views facing outside, to the world they used to inhabit, and views facing inside, into their common room and home for the duration of their stay.

Inmates must make their bed in the morning, and after breakfast chores begin.

This is "communal living," as John Nahanni, deputy warden of programs and sentence administration says, so everybody has to pitch in.

They clean floors, windows, showers and their cells. They vacuum, take out the garbage and recycling and, if they're lucky, they get to head out with work crews to volunteer for non-profits in the capital.

Programs begin at 8:30 a.m., as does recreation and arts and crafts activities.

Prisoners' lives are regimented, lunch and dinner are served at the same time each day and meals can range from lasagna and fruits and vegetables to fish (a popular choice with inmates, Nahanni said) and soup and sandwiches. There is usually dessert, too.

On weekends and statutory holidays, brunch is served instead, and nobody is forced to wake up at 7 a.m.

"Like most people, they hope to sleep in," Nahanni said.

For the duration of the day inmates can take part in programs, although none are mandatory.

"A lot of the focus is up to the inmate. There's really nothing to benefit from forcing somebody to go to something if they don't want to. It's like bringing a horse to water. If the horse isn't going to drink, what are you going to do?" he said. "The bottom line is we really strongly encourage and counsel offenders as to getting involved into programs, trying to explain the benefit and help them understand the importance to trying to participate."

Programs at the territory's jails - North Slave Correctional Centre, South Mackenzie Correctional Centre, Fort Smith Correctional Complex, North Slave Youth Offender Facility and the Alcantara wilderness camp near Fort Smith - vary widely, but most are offered for inmates in Yellowknife.

There are educational programs run by the one teacher on staff, and the focus is on literacy, but inmates can also take correspondence work as well.

An estimated 90 per cent of the inmates have substance abuse problems, according to Nahanni, so alcohol counselling, Narcotics Anonymous, Alcoholics Anonymous and the National Substance Abuse Program are all offered.

There is a formal reintegration program which helps inmates find jobs, write resumes, get identification and set up bank accounts.

There is the National Sex Offender Program, the basic healing program and the family violence program.

There is a chaplain on staff who counsels inmates, but also arranges for people of other faiths to visit the jail.

"Our focus is on working with our clients, with our inmates, and trying to help them," Nahanni said.

Some people don't want to get involved in programs, he said, and others can't because of the short length of their stay, but for those that do, the path isn't always easy.

"Some people say, 'They have cable, they have three square meals a day, they have more than I have.' It's just not that easy. Not only are you giving up your freedoms, you're constantly being encouraged to deal with drama you may not have dealt with before," Nahanni said.

One former inmate, who served from February to April 2009 for assault and breach of probation, said his stay at the North Slave Correctional Centre was not what he expected.

"Actually, I had fun in there, man," he said. "I think in order to make the time go faster, I think you have to have a bit of fun."

There are no bars on the windows, you can go shopping at the canteen for pop and chips and Kraft Dinner, and you end up making a lot of friends, he said.

"It's pretty easy going, unless you f around. You just sit around, flip channels."

He said he tried to take part in programs, like anger management, but was told he couldn't because they ran longer than his stay.

"I never want to go back and I never want to do the things I did again," he said.

"A very high percentage of our clients are aboriginal," Nahanni said.

Recent reports have put the rate at around 80 per cent, but he said it would be safe to say the number is higher.

Due to the demographics, traditional and aboriginal programming is at the forefront.

"They're learning their traditional values. And if not learning, then re-learning them," Nahanni said.

There is a traditional counsellor on site who does one-on-one sessions with inmates, but also arranges for them to go outside, feed the fire and take part in sharing and healing circles.

"A large part of this is learning from experience," Nahanni said.

Smudging material is also provided, he said, and three times a day inmates can go and smudge.

In addition, there are weekly drumming sessions.

"It's very moving, spiritual," he said.

Capacity at the North Slave Correctional Facility is 155, but they sit below that at the moment. Stays range from days to years, and for federal inmate the minimum stay is two years.

If the Conservative government's proposed Safe Streets and Communities Act, which would put in new mandatory minimums, passes, those numbers might change.

Nahanni said he is unsure how that would impact the facility, and the justice system in the North.

"What I do know is, regardless of what comes out of the bill, our focus is always going to be on helping the guys as much as we can," he said.

Next week: News/North takes a closer look at life after prison. What support is offered once offenders return to their community? And what is being done to make sure they don't re-offend?

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