I Am Banned from Visiting All Nunavut Prisons After Reporting on Alleged Abuses

I've been collecting first-hand accounts from one of Canada’s most violent, dilapidated, and overcrowded northern jails for four years.

by Thomas Rohner
Feb 12 2019, 6:55pm

The Baffin Correctional Centre | Left photo via CP / Right photo by Thomas Rohner.

I’ve been visiting Inuit prisoners and reporting their first-hand accounts from one of Canada’s most violent, dilapidated, and overcrowded northern jails for nearly four years.

The Baffin Correctional Centre, long known by government officials to compromise the humane treatment and constitutional rights of its prisoners, sits on the outskirts of Iqaluit, where it opened over 30 years ago as a minimum security facility.

My visits with prisoners have sometimes been just to talk. Prisoners have expressed loneliness, boredom and suffering. Many have inflicted significant harm, and those they love often cannot forgive and do not visit them. One prisoner murdered his step-brother in a jealous blacked-out rage. He told me of his conversion to Islam and his efforts to repent. We talked about his love of hunting, the land and huskies. Another prisoner once told me how much healthier he was behind bars, away from alcohol. Meanwhile, screams from the segregation cell next to the visiting room punctured our conversation.

Today, the jail is used to house prisoners of all security levels. Under-trained and over-worked staff grapple with this mixed population, prone to unrest linked to a lack of programming opportunities and a crumbling infrastructure.

But now, Nunavut’s justice department has virtually made it impossible for me to collect first-hand accounts of prisoners.

On December 14, 2018, Nunavut’s Director of Corrections banned me from visiting prisoners at all Nunavut prisons after alleging my visits were not in the best interest of prisoners. In January, with the pro bono help of a team of Toronto lawyers, I filed an application in the Nunavut Court of Justice for a judicial review of that decision.

I believe the real reason I have been banned is a series of stories I wrote as an investigative reporter for VICE News in September and October focusing on the use of solitary confinement and possible human rights abuses at the Iqaluit jail. The warden put a partial ban on my visits soon after the publication of these stories, which relied on data obtained through Access to Information requests and first-hand accounts of prisoners. My stories also included growing concerns from the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, Sen. Kim Pate, and a Nunavut MLA.

I believe the director’s decision violates a number of democratic freedoms, including the freedom of the press, protected under Canada’s Charter to ensure the public has access to otherwise hard-to-reach information. But when a journalist’s freedoms are infringed, the primary victims are those at the centre of the story, those whose voices are silenced.

In this case, those voices belong to Inuit men locked up in a “correctional centre,” which has been so harshly condemned by Canada’s Auditor General and federal correctional investigator that a senior bureaucrat acknowledged in 2015 the government is “likely in significant breach of constitutional obligations” towards its prisoners.

Photo by Thomas Rohner

These voices are already marginalized to the extremity of Canadian society. Local media and organizations regularly report that Inuit men in particular have struggled to find their place in post-colonial Nunavut. Efforts starting in the mid 1900s saw Inuit forcibly removed and coerced from their traditionally nomadic lifestyles with the promise of education, housing, health care, and other government services and protections that have often failed to materialize. In the wake of colonization, many Inuit men have struggled to find their purpose and self-worth, turning to substance abuse, which often leads to violence and jail.

Justice officials first raised concerns to me in October, when the warden accused me of “passing unauthorized material” to two prisoners and barred me from visiting a total of four prisoners. The material I was accused of passing to the prisoners—in full view of the guards, in a jail where visit rules were neither communicated nor posted, and appear to change for each visit—was a print-out of the VICE News stories for which I interviewed two prisoners. In my four years of visits, I’ve never been told of a ban on passing printed pages to prisoners.

Following the ban, the minister has defended her director’s decision in responses to letters she has received from third-parties who support my efforts to have the ban lifted. The minister alleges my visits upset prisoners so much that they become aggressive towards staff, property and other prisoners. This affects prisoners’ access to programming and privileges, she argues.

I question if that is the case.

I remember one visit in October with a prisoner who told me he had been diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia. He refused to take his medication because of the side effects and was therefore transferred from a minimum security facility to segregation, at his request, in the Iqaluit jail. Here he spent 23 hours a day by himself without meaningful human contact, he told me. At the onset of the second visit, guards led him to the visiting room but at the last moment he said he didn’t want to go through with the visit. On my drive home, this prisoner called me on my cell. He was scared other prisoners were going to jump him, he told me. He called me regularly for the next few weeks just to talk.

During a September interview I relayed this prisoner’s first-hand anecdotes of life behind bars to the minister, her deputy minister, and the premier’s press secretary. All of his anecdotes were denied by officials without any supporting evidence. It was their word against his.

Although I am still banned, the department informs me I can leave voice messages for prisoners, who may then choose to call me back. So far, I’ve left about a dozen messages for four prisoners. Two of those prisoners said they never received the messages; the other two have not yet called me back.

As a reporter, I often wade through misleading rhetoric and political posturing of politicians, bureaucrats, lawyers, and others in order to expose uncomfortable truths. Sometimes information is guarded for good reason: Prisoners’ privacy rights, for example, are important. And often, government officials are simply trying to do their best in challenging situations. The Director of Corrections and his prison guards, for example, have consistently given me the impression of caring for prisoners under their watch.

But in this case, I believe the department is acting to protect its glaring lack of accountability in the absence of any external oversight. While the facility has been subject to federal investigations, Nunavut does not have a corrections watchdog. Without oversight and accountability, contempt and disrespect creeps into a workplace, no matter how good the staff’s work ethic or intentions.

The kind of disrespect, for example, that allows public servants to speak for prisoners without providing sufficient proof to back up what they say.

Prisoners get at least one hour of fresh air per day.

An inmate committee is up and running at the jail.

Prisoners have not been deprived food in order to coerce a stubborn lone prisoner to obey guards.

We do not practice solitary confinement.

These are all statements officials have made to me over the years—from wardens to deputy ministers—that prisoners have directly contradicted during my visits.

Or the kind of disrespect embedded in empty words. The minister insists segregated prisoners have regular access to “meaningful contact” with others yet the department has no definition of “meaningful contact,” nor tracks relevant data.

Or knee-jerk defensiveness that shows a disregard for truth. In September, one prisoner told me guards had used group punishment to compel obedience from another prisoner. In response, the premier’s press secretary said, “I don’t know why the collective would be punished for one person, that doesn’t make a lot of sense.” In fact, this is such an effective and brutal tactic that it is explicitly condemned by the United Nations.

The justice minister has received letters on my behalf from Sen. Kim Pate, the Canadian Association of Journalists and the Canadian Media Guild, with letters from the Canadian Civil Liberties Association and Canadian Journalists for Free Expression on their way. In one response, the minister calls me “arrogant, belligerent and demanding.” I deny these accusations and wonder why the government appears to be shifting tactics to attack my character. But no matter how much the government attacks my character, this isn’t about me.

It’s about the incarcerated Inuit men who had found voice enough to defend their human rights, a voice effectively silenced by the department.

Follow Thomas on Twitter.

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