A tale of two jails: Rankin Inlet and Iqaluit
“In here, you’re dealing with a lot of trauma. These men are angry—that’s why they’re here”
RANKIN INLET—You might be hard-pressed to find anything in common between the three-year-old Rankin Inlet Healing Facility and the decades-old Baffin Correctional Centre in Iqaluit.
The healing centre houses medium- and low-security inmates while in the BCC, overcrowded inmates of all security levels mix together between walls with holes where contraband has been known to flow freely.
Staff in Rankin Inlet recently led Nunatsiaq News on a tour of the 48-bed facility, the first time media have ever been invited for a peek inside.
That tour revealed some of the stark differences between the two jails.
For example, nearly half of the staff in Rankin Inlet are women and more than half are Inuit, according to the healing centre’s warden, Doug Friesen, who came out of retirement to help the Government of Nunavut open the centre in 2013.
The BCC meanwhile struggles to hire both women and Inuit.
There are advantages to having more women and Inuit on staff, said Esther Powell, the deputy warden of programs, who is originally from Arviat and started working at the centre as a nurse.
“Speaking Inuktitut lowers some barriers between inmates and staff. And having women staff softens the whole environment, I think,” she said during the tour.
In the fall sitting of the territory’s legislature, which wrapped up last month, MLAs discussed the much-needed plans to overhaul the BCC over the next five years.
The first phase of those plans, to get underway in 2017-18, will focus on designing the major renovations, Justice Minister Keith Peterson said in the legislature.
It will see a two-story maximum-security extension with 56 beds built onto the back of the existing structure.
Inmates will then be housed in that extension during the second phase, which involves an overhaul of the existing structure that will result in 56 medium and minimum security beds, the minister said.
The total cost of the renovation is estimated at roughly $72 million: $15.4 million from the GN and $57 million from Ottawa.
The new facility, scheduled to open in 2021, will also get a new name—the Qikiqtani Correctional Healing Centre
But can the new Iqaluit jail live up to its name as a healing centre?
A 2015 Auditor General’s report on the Rankin healing centre said the facility lacked a healing vision.
Friesen said the Rankin Inlet healing centre has come a long way since then.
For example, Uja Karetak, who delivers counseling programs and is another Inuk worker at the Rankin Inlet facility, has helped many inmates develop coping mechanisms to deal with past trauma.
“In here, you’re dealing with a lot of trauma. These men are angry—that’s why they’re here,” Karetak said.
The counselor said she aims to provide inmates who wake up in the middle of the night from nightmares, or who suffer from flashbacks, with coping mechanisms that ground them in the present instead of reliving the past.
And Karetak does that, in part, by using the inmates’ five senses—focusing on the taste of a candy or the smell of coffee grounds to shift their focus and calm them down.
“It’s something for them to use on their own, when they go home,” Karetak said, adding some inmates take to keeping a journal instead.
In partnership with Nunavut Arctic College, and using the state-of-the-art trades school in town, staff at the Rankin Inlet facility said inmates can sometimes participate and get certified in college-level programs.
Other popular programs see inmates go out on the land to learn traditional hunting skills from an elder or out to nearby public recreation areas to perform outdoor maintenance work, Deputy Warden Powell said.
“Our history is all connected to the land…. and a lot of us are losing that, so that’s what our lands program aims to do—reconnect Inuit with the land,” she said.
Programs are also lacking at the BCC, where inmates have told Nunatsiaq News in the past that outdoor programs and basic access to fresh air—a human right recognized by the United Nations—are regularly withheld.
At the Rankin Inlet Healing Centre, inmates have access to a fenced-in outdoor area almost any time they are awake, Friesen said.
And an active inmate committee meets with prison staff once a month in Rankin Inlet to raise inmates’ concerns, the warden said.
Inmates in Iqaluit have said their committee, on the rare occasion that one exists, is not heard by prison staff.
The BCC has its own set of challenges because of the state of the building and the mixing of inmates with different security levels, said Friesen, who used to be warden at the Iqaluit jail before retiring.
But perhaps one of the biggest and simplest differences between the two prisons’ approaches can be seen in the staff uniforms.
John Ussak, an Inuk warden in training at the Rankin Inlet centre, said staff requested a change in uniform to something less formal.
“It made a big difference. Offenders talk to us a lot more now, it’s easier for them to come up to staff,” Ussak said.