The Government of Nunavut is denying VICE News’ requests to visit prisoners inside the decrepit Iqaluit jail, following a series of articles that scrutinize the conditions prisoners face.
In an email, Michael Warren, the warden of the Baffin Correctional Centre, declined an Oct. 16 request, blaming a previous VICE News visit “where you were observed passing unauthorized material without staff approval or knowledge.”
Warren did not respond to a request for more information.
The territory's justice department has since confirmed that the “unauthorized material” consisted of a print-out of a story provided to two prisoners, published by VICE News Sept. 28, titled, “Prisoners held in solitary speak out about notorious Iqaluit jail.”
The prison’s protocols require visitors to declare their intention to provide prisoners with any documents for safety and security reasons, the department said.
But this was not explained to VICE News during any of the six visits in recent weeks, nor was it posted in the jail.
Prison staff also failed to explain and consistently enforce other protocols during each visit. The only publicly-posted rule at the jail concerned bringing food into the prison.
During a visit in September, VICE News asked a prison guard if a prisoner could receive a newspaper clipping. The guard said he was unsure but, if so, he would give the prisoner the clipping. On the next visit, the prisoner told VICE News he had received the clipping.
The Iqaluit jail is Nunavut’s main prison, but the facility, built in 1986, has long been deemed dangerous and inadequate. In 2014, correctional investigator Howard Sapers compared the Iqaluit jail with the worst prisons he’d seen in the world, in part because of a mould infestation, holes in exterior walls and improper oversight over segregation.
A VICE News investigation published Sept. 12, based on ATI requests, found prisoners at the Iqaluit jail subjected to lengthy stays in segregation, including two prisoners for over four months. Experts told VICE News that appeared to violate the United Nation’s Standards for the Minimum Treatment of Prisoners and the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
The VICE News story that triggered the government’s visit refusal focused on the first-hand accounts of prisoners in segregation. “I’m being treated like an animal, I feel like an animal,” one prisoner told us.
It’s important that these voices are being heard, according to Karyn Pugliese, president of the Canadian Association of Journalists, and executive director of news and current affairs at the Aboriginal People’s Television Network.
All prisoners interviewed by VICE News in recent months are Inuit. Indigenous people are disproportionately jailed in Canada — about 25 percent of all prisoners in federal prisons are Indigenous, despite only accounting for about 4 percent of the total population.
“You have to ask yourself, why is that? Having access to people in prisons is key to understanding that and building interventions to perhaps prevent people from going into prison in the first place,” said Pugliese, who identifies as an Algonquin member of the Pikwakanagan Nation.
“Until recently, Indigenous people have been absent from the media in general. They’re reported about, but rarely talked to,” she added.
Catherine Latimer, executive director of the John Howard Society, said it should be a general concern for the public if journalists are not being allowed to speak to prisoners.
“There have been many, many issues that have come to light, which have warranted some measure of further investigation and accountability, because of the good work of journalists,” said Latimer, whose organization advocates for male prisoners across Canada. She pointed to the death of Matthew Hines in New Brunswick in 2015, which was first reported by federal correctional authorities as the result of a seizure. After an investigation by CBC, two guards now face charges of manslaughter.
“It’s very difficult for prisoners to have their rights violations brought to light and addressed if there’s no communication flowing from the institution.”
Latimer says the fact that Nunavut does not currently have any external oversight of its prisons is a formula for trouble.
“It’s very difficult for prisoners to have their rights violations brought to light and addressed if there’s no communication flowing from the institution,” she said. “We know historically and through evidence, it’s fairly common for prisoners to be treated poorly.”
The more prisoners have access to visitors and information about their rights, including from journalists, the better chance they have at rehabilitation and reintegration into society, according to Noa Mendelsohn, a director with the Canadian Civil Liberties Association.
“It’s in the prisoner’s interest and in everybody’s interest that they receive re-integration opportunities while they’re locked up.”
It’s hard to understand how a news item in a major publication would be a security breach so serious as to deny visit requests with prisoners, especially when that rule was not made explicitly clear, according to Mendelsohn.
Pugliese says it appears the Nunavut government did not clearly communicate its protocols to VICE News.
“They have a protocol but it doesn’t seem like they had a clear way of expressing what the protocol was ... maybe a lot of people aren’t clear on it ... I would hope that they would understand this was a mistake and allow you access in the future.”
An email recieved on Oct. 24 from the warden about another visit was not promising, however.
“Please be advised that this visit request, as well as the other two you have made, have been denied,” Warren wrote.
Cover image of Baffin Correctional Centre by Thomas Rohner