Baffin Correctional Centre inmates decry lack of access to radio, Inuktut publications
“I think it would help us in the jail if we had this kind of stuff … to see what people have to say in Canada and the rest of the world”
Prisoners at the Baffin Correctional Centre in Iqaluit say their lack of access to information from the outside world, especially in Inuktitut, is hurting their chances of rehabilitation.
And that, in turn, is a form of punishment through cultural deprivation, threatens victims of crime and is likely illegal, according to two prominent Canadians who are experts in prisoner treatment.
“Why don’t we get radio or access to Inuktitut magazines or books or traditional stories from the past? Nobody ever answers. I think it would help us in the jail if we had this kind of stuff … to see what people have to say in Canada and the rest of the world,” prisoner Poasie Aniniliak said.
Aniniliak is one of three prisoners who spoke to Nunatsiaq News about access they have to the outside world through things like the internet, radio, television and books. The prisoners spoke from a small interview room with patched-up plywood walls and plastic furniture at the notoriously inadequate Iqaluit jail, which has been deemed inadequate in reports by the auditor general and by the Office of the Correctional Investigator. Pencilled graffiti on the walls in Inuktitut carried hopeful and religious messages.
Connections to the outside world are widely accepted as crucial to a prisoner’s chance of successful reintegration into their community after prison. For example, the United Nations Standards for the Minimum Treatment of Prisoners, also called the Mandela Rules, reflect this.
One of the rules, of which Canada is a signatory, says prisoners shall be regularly informed through media like newspapers or radio. Another rule says every prison shall have a library.
The BCC “currently abides by these rules,” Nunavut’s Justice Department said in an email. “Books are made available upon written request. Religious materials are available upon written request in several languages.”
But all three prisoners said they only have regular access to television, with limited programming in Inuktitut. And that’s only if they are not in one of the two assessment cells.
Formerly called segregation cells, prisoners in the assessment cells only emerge for one hour each day, during which they have time to shower, watch TV, get fresh air and use the phone, the prisoners said.
This would break not only the Mandela rules on access to information from the outside, but also another rule that says every prisoner should have access to fresh air each day for one full hour.
The only regular Inuktitut-language TV program available to prisoners is CBC’s Igalaaq, which airs nightly at 6 p.m., Aniniliak said. The Aboriginal People’s Television Network is the only other channel that sometimes carries Inuktitut-language programming, the prisoners said.
“Inmates currently have access to several TV channels in the Inuktitut language,” the department said.
Most prisoners watch Igalaaq every night, Aniniliak said. But in the assessment cell, you don’t have access to TV at that time, he added. During the 23 hours prisoners spend in assessment cells daily, they can sometimes hear the TV through the crack underneath the door, the prisoners said.
The department said prisoners do not currently have access to newspapers, but in the past a prisoner committee requested newspapers, which were provided.
“Should a request for newspapers come forward now, we will revisit this practice.”
Guy Uniuqsaraq, another prisoner, said prisoners used to be able to request print-outs from online sources.
“I would ask for news from the day, or some images I’d like to draw…. That hasn’t happened for a while. I haven’t even asked what’s going on in the outside world,” he said.
Uniuqsaraq spends most of his time reading his Bible or drawing. He said he remembers when prisoners used to have access to two or three shelves of books.
“Rarely do I see inmates go and pick a book,” he said.
And he wasn’t sure if those books were still available.
There used to be a room at the BCC with computers for learning, the prisoners said. But that room has since been turned into a gym, and any books or computers that were in that room have been removed, they said.
Uniuqsaraq said access to many things hasve been revoked because of the behaviour of past prisoners.
“It’s beyond an inmate’s control, trying to ask for these things.”
Dennis Kilabuk, another prisoner, said he would most like to be able to listen to the radio, especially in Inuktitut.
“If we got radio, that would help a lot. As Inuit, we’re always listening to radio. Everywhere in communities it’s like that. We usually want to know what’s going on out there,” Kilabuk said.
“There is currently no access to radios,” said the Justice Department.
Most of the prison’s books were lost in a 2018 riot, the government said. Currently, the prison has about 300 books, including instructional, fiction and non-fiction books, according to the government.
“Books are made available upon request.”
But Kilabuk disagreed. He said there is a cardboard box with 20 or 30 old books, mostly donated by guards, that prisoners can choose from on request. Sometimes those requests are ignored, he added.
He asked for a Bible but didn’t get one, so eventually a maintenance worker at the jail donated a Bible, Kilabuk said.
“Inuktitut-language bibles are made available upon request,” the department said.
Kilabuk said, “I asked for a dictionary so I could study words in English, but nothing.”
A box of books is a sorry excuse for a library, John Ralston Saul told Nunatsiaq News.
“This idea that you just have a bunch of old books in a box, you wouldn’t do that to a child,” said Saul, an author, academic and former president of PEN International, an organization that promotes freedom of speech and literature.
As president, Saul said he worked with prisoners in dozens of countries.
“The more prisoners have access to reading material and any kind of cultural experiences—that’s absolutely essential to their success when they leave prison,” Saul said over the phone from Germany.
Withholding cultural material from prisoners is even more disturbing if corrections officials are of a different culture, Saul said.
“The courts did not order a people whose language is Inuktitut to be denied access to cultural materials in Inuktitut…. So it’s ethically wrong and probably not legal,” he said.
It’s also short-sighted and counter-productive, Saul added, since depriving prisoners of accessing their culture in their own language reduces their chances at rehabilitation.
“You have to think about access to books as part of a program that helps ensure that people will not recommit crimes … So it’s a matter of protecting victims,” Saul said.
Senator Kim Pate, an independent senator from Ontario appointed by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, said one of the most common questions victims of crime have is: how can we ensure this crime doesn’t happen to someone else?
Before her appointment as a senator, Pate spent years working for female prisoners’ rights across Canada.
Experts agree that the best way to ensure prisoners successfully and safely reintegrate into their communities is by ensuring they have access to the outside world while in prison, Pate said.
The lack of radio access at the BCC appears especially concerning, the senator added.
“If prison staff are denying prisoners radios, then on what legal basis are they doing that?” Pate asked.
Such a denial would go beyond a court-ordered prison sentence.
“Where you see correctional treatment interfering with the legal sanctions imposed, then there should be a way for prisoners to have those wrongs remedied.”