Inmates planned to burn down the jail, guard’s report says
Documents paint picture of March 18 blaze that closed facility for 6 weeks and caused $250,000 in damages
The mood inside Baffin Correctional Centre’s Charlie Unit was tense, and the inmates were behaving strangely.
It was around 1 p.m. on March 18, just a couple hours before a fire in the unit’s dorm 5 broke out.
“Worthy of note is that the kitchen crew all decided they were not going to the kitchen to work,” stated Oladayo Omotayo, a guard working in the unit that day.
She is among 24 staff at the jail to provide statements about what they saw and heard on the day of the fire, which caused $250,000 in damage to the facility.
The statements — officially known as incident reports — obtained by Nunatsiaq News through an access to information request, provide a clearer picture of what was happening in the jail before the fire, and challenges staff faced that day.
Omotayo was the only staff member to report she noticed something was off.
She said inmates were trying “everything to distract” her. One tried to get her to leave by asking her to wash his brown water cup.
At one point, she saw an inmate get the attention of some others to join him in the washroom. She called on her partner in the unit to see what was happening.
“On getting to the washroom, [redacted] was filling a garbage bag … with water in the garbage bin,” she stated, adding the inmate took the bag into one of the rooms in Charlie Unit.
Around a half-hour before the fire, Omotayo noted a lot of activity around dorm 5.
“This writer at 1454hrs then noticed [redacted] step out of dorm 5 with a thumbs up,” she stated.
“This writer immediately went to check what might be going on in this dorm. While trying to open the door, [redacted] tried stopping this writer but this writer was able to get a glance of the fire starting to burn the left part of the window upward.”
That’s when Omotayo called for backup.
She said inmates accused her of “ruining [their] plan to burn the building.”
“How many of your [exes] did you catch cheating because you should work for the FBI,” said one inmate.
Others made threats to burn her car, kill her, and get her fired.
In various statements, the blaze was described as “huge,” and “increasing in intensity.”
One guard tried to use a fire extinguisher, but the fire continued to burn through the window to the outside of the building.
Another staff member hurt his arm and back in a fall, according to a document with a list of injuries.
Mark Byrne does not mention his injury in his statement, and a separate report provided by shift supervisor Colin Kilabuk says no staff or inmates were hurt.
According to justice spokesperson Mark Witzaney, the statements are firsthand accounts following a stressful situation.
“Given their role or responsibility during the incident, each staff member’s perspective may differ,” he stated, adding they didn’t have much time to write their statements, so typos, errors and lapses in memory “would not be unlikely.”
“Which is why the department collects as many perspectives as possible following such incidents.”
Back at the jail, other guards started evacuating inmates, including a few who went to the young offenders facility, at around 4:30 p.m.
This group caused more problems.
At around 6 p.m., an inmate kicked his cell door, causing it to become jammed in the frame, according to a statement provided by staff member Lily Zhang.
That’s when a staff member identified as Lafleur, L. smelled tobacco smoke and realized the smell was coming from behind the jammed door.
“This writer advised the clients to cut it out,” stated Lafleur, “Since staff could not enter the room.”
A few minutes later, the smell of marijuana smoke started wafting from the cell, according to Lafleur.
The inmates remained there until the door was fixed around 8:15 p.m.
The Justice Department has been highly secretive about the cause and circumstances of the fire, at times downplaying its severity and heavily redacting documents released to Nunatsiaq News earlier this year through an access to information request.
In March, city spokesperson Lisa Milosavljevic said the fire was minor, caused by a piece of burning plastic.
The department originally chose not to release the witness statements included in this story, citing an ongoing investigation into the incident.
The department reversed that decision in September at the recommendation of the territory’s information and privacy commissioner, who argued that relying too heavily on this provision as a reason to not release documents can create a “black hole into which too much information could disappear.”
The RCMP is still investigating the fire, said spokesperson Cpl. Pauline Melanson. She did not offer any updates to the investigation, which has been ongoing for six months.