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

Incident reports written by staff following a March 18 fire at Iqaluit’s Baffin Correctional Centre paint a picture of what was going on in the facility just before the first broke out. (Photo by David Venn)

By Randi Beers

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.

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(22) Comments:

  1. Posted by Seriously on

    This article definitely reads as though it’s punching down. Why name front line staff and talk about their harrowing experience? I’m sure the staff who worked long hours and who went through trauma are not enjoying having to re-experience this trauma and read about it in the news to be part of town gossip. I get reporting on the details generally but to name and shame staff and to even talk about a potential injury? Its pretty gross.

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    • Posted by Pangloss on

      I agree in principle, but I’m not sure I see any shaming going in here.

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    • Posted by TMO on

      Completely agree! I hope the staff receive the support they need after this experience and having their information published with names. Wholly inappropriate and unnecessary!

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  2. Posted by Ontheblock on

    The fact they are naming staff is incredibly disrespectful. Staff go through enough inside and outside the facility. The fact they find it necessary to name them in such a small town is borderline dangerous, the department and government should not allow it. Release the report but why release the names of the staff. The Inmates are entitled to their privacy staff should be too.

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    • Posted by Shame on Nunatsiaq news on

      Shame on Nunatsiaq news for reporting people’s names. So unnecessary and potentially dangerous to these people. I hope they are held accountable if anything happens to them.

  3. Posted by TMO on

    I come here to read the news, not your personal opinion. If the editor of this paper plans on sharing their personal feelings about current events please label the articles as editorials.

    Using inflammatory language such as “highly secretive” and “downplaying its severity” is ridiculous without allowing subjects a chance to respond. Were they stalled by RCMP or Fire Marshal investigations? Were they waiting on consultation before releasing information? Were they focusing on preserving or promoting the health and safety of their inmates and staff?

    On another note, using the names of staff in this report is unnecessary and in my opinion not appropriate in our small town. I hope the staff are well and this doesn’t continue or cause stress.

    Please continue to report on current events and hold the GN accountable – just don’t fill in the blanks with your opinion.

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  4. Posted by Is it Relevant on

    Is it relevant to the story to include front line staff names to tell this story? No. While I appreciate that Access to Information was granted, publishing the name of the front line worker who wrote the report does not add to the larger story. It is already extremely difficult for corrections to hire staff, and articles like this will not help. Naming the individual staff member in this case who is documented as receiving death threats according to the article, could also cause much undo stress son the individual. I am glad the information request does include names of staff, however if it is not relevant to the story being conveyed they should just identify them as ” a staff member” for the purposes of publication.

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  5. Posted by JOHN ELL on

    The Premiere and his ministers could look at a facility across the country and perhaps used that as a model up here. After any event, at the end of the day, public safety is their responsibility in Nunavut.

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  6. Posted by Worried about staff….. on

    Now worried about the staff that had their names published. Once the inmates are released, they will look for revenge and those death threats may even be carried upon. They are under payed already for all they have to deal with, now they had to be publicly reported with names included who said this, who said that,etc.

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  7. Posted by Laura Lightfeather on

    I haven’t been too many places but this jail here sounds almost like jails in Chicago or Phoenix where the inmates are running the show. I can’t imagine getting arrested in this city and winding up having to spend the night there, especially if it was for something I didn’t do. And if you’re from a family that some of these folks know and don’t like? God help you. Please get help if you are having trouble with your kids behaviour at home. The time to get a handle on this is when they’re really young. Because after 10-11 it’s almost too late. This is the most violent I’ve seen our young people right now. We can’t have a society in another decade where we’re all afraid to go anywhere because we’re going to get robbed or have our homes set on fire.

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  8. Posted by the inmates running the prison on

    The fact that inmates can smoke so much weed inside the jail and have access to contraband where they can start a fire is concerning. How is this allowed? How do they access this much drugs and equipment where they can start a fire?
    Also, the inmates running the prison is also a problem which probably explains why BCC has had so many riots and so many damages over the years. Department of Justice does not seem to have the staffing, the resources, and the proper training to operate a jail for inmates who are high risk so allowing the inmates to run the prison probably helps them because if they try to enforce rules, the inmates seem to threaten the staff, throw a riot, or attempt to burn the building down. Stressful and sad for all involved because this does not help keep staff safe and enabling unsafe actions also does not help heal the inmates.
    They do not seem to have this many issues at the Rankin facility. Maybe they need to figure out what is working there that it clearly not working for BCC.

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    • Posted by Not exactly on

      You’re not comparing the same things.

      Rankin is half the size and is able to pick only the most well behaved inmates. If someone is too difficult for them to deal with or behaves badly they just ship them back to us in Iqaluit.

      Obviously if we could do that we would have it way easier too, and you wouldn’t be reading a story like this. We get the worst and are stuck with them.

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  9. Posted by troubled on

    let’s see the staff currently at bcc, mostly non-inuit who have no idea what they are doing, no idea how to deal with those that need help the most, inmates. they work at grocery stores before they get these jobs and hired by their own people because they know they will get the jobs no matter what. they are coming in droves. they are helping themselves all around Iqaluit. we have no control over anything right now, how to help our own people because the people in power are only helping themselves.

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    • Posted by Par for the course on

      Yet there they are, working one of the most thankless, difficult jobs in the territory.

      How privileged you are to squawk your racist non-sense from the sidelines, pretending to have the answers you almost certainly do not have.

      Why don’t you go apply there? The world can not wait a moment longer for you to come change it.

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  10. Posted by troubled on

    Exactly what I expected from someone who has no interest whatsoever to help. only criticize what is true. Defend your own terrible actions. I am not priviliged and only trying to help my fellow people as you have never tried. GN numbers says it all. we cannot help those that want jobs because they are taking their families and friends here to hire them. I guess it is easier to call me racist.

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    • Posted by Not even on

      It’s not true though. There are priority hiring policies in place so if an Inuk wants a job in corrections or anywhere in the GN they have the advantage over anyone else who might want the same job.

      If you notice that there are less Inuit in a workplace than you think there should be (how do you even know this?) the problem isn’t those pesky outsiders who migrated over from the grocery store.

      This kind of thinking is ignorant, gross, and unfortunately all too common.

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    • Posted by Lol Inuks on

      Everyone knows that you basically have to be dead to be unable to get a position as a beneficiary in the GN. No Inuit work in corrections or policing or we wouldn’t have those terrible people from the south here working. Go and get a job or give yiur head a shake if you buy the nonsense that Inuit aren’t being offered job opportunities.

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      • Posted by Corrections is a sinking ship on

        The truth is there are lots of Inuit hired at justice and who work in the jails. Many work hard and do a great job.

        The real concern is people, either Inuit of Southerners, who are put in management positions that they just don’t have the experience or skill level to do well.

        How did they get there? Usually by loyalty to their superiors. By time in the job, or by saying yes and never rocking the boat. Or, at worst, because they meet the right ‘visibility criteria.’

        What this department badly needs is management, whatever their race, who are educated. As it is we have very little of that and it shows.

  11. Posted by Nunavutmiuta on

    This is only from one sided story, what the staff know. I know the guy who started the fire, and it was not planned. What happen was the inmate was making a hole for smuggling and he hit a wire then sparks, then he grab the first liquid he seen and just so happens ito be windex and that sadly was a flammable

    • Posted by Frank on

      I just read the label on my Windex bottle. It isn’t flammable. Perhaps you should expect your criminal friend to make up a story like that. And you believed it!

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