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Prisoners held in solitary speak out about notorious Iqaluit jail

"I feel like an animal," said one. But the Nunavut government defends its use of segregation.

by Thomas Rohner
Sep 28 2018, 6:43pm

There is nothing to fix because there is no problem: That's the position the Government of Nunavut is taking on its use of segregation at the notorious Baffin Correctional Centre in Iqaluit, despite the first-hand accounts of its own citizens locked up in the jail, Canadian superior court decisions and experts who say otherwise.

The government was responding to a VICE News investigation that found it held prisoners at the outdated and dilapidated Iqaluit jail in segregation for longer than 15 days on 60 occasions over the last two years, including two inmates for more than four months. That’s an apparent violation of international standards and may amount to torture, experts told VICE News.

But Nunavut Justice Minister Jeannie Ehaloak doesn’t think there is anything wrong. Asked directly if she considered the use of segregation at BCC problematic, she said: "No, I don't think so."

The minister also disputed how the treatment is being characterized.

“Segregation and solitary confinement are two totally different ideas. We do not hold our inmates in solitary confinement,” Ehaloak told VICE News in an interview.

That’s counter to views expressed by two superior courts outside of Nunavut, that have already ruled segregation and solitary confinement amount to the same thing.

“Correctional authorities are trying to use different language, but that doesn’t change the reality that people in segregation are isolated and don’t have meaningful contact,” Senator Kim Pate, who champions prisoner rights, previously told VICE News.

Two prisoners at the Iqaluit jail recently interviewed by VICE News also contradicted the government. Throughout a one-hour interview with Eetooloo Ejetsiak in the BCC on Sept. 26, muffled screams and thumping sounds could be heard.

“Those sounds are coming from the [segregation] cells, just behind that wall” said Ejetsiak, 48, in the cramped interview room. A roll of toilet paper sat on a fake-wood desk, two worn office chairs and a metallic filing cabinet full of hanging files crowded the small room. The screams were not words but indistinct sounds.

That same day, VICE News also met with Ehaloak, her deputy minister Bill MacKay and the premier’s press secretary Cate MacLeod at a long conference table on the second floor of Nunavut’s Legislative Assembly.

"Meaningful contact to me would be if an inmate sat with an elder, had a conversation."

The officials explained that, under the United Nations’ Minimum Standards for the Treatment of Prisoners, solitary confinement is when a prisoner is locked up in a cell for at least 22 hours without any meaningful contact. These standards, also called the “Mandella Rules,” list prolonged solitary confinement, which lasts for over 15 days, as an example of “torture or other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment.”

Ehaloak said some inmates at the Iqaluit jail choose voluntarily to be in segregation for a variety of reasons, are placed in a segregation cell with three to five others, and have daily "meaningful" contact.

But the minister did not provide numbers to back up those assertions.

When asked for the department’s definition of “daily meaningful contact,” deputy minister MacKay said the department does not currently have one.

“Meaningful contact to me would be if an inmate sat with an elder, had a conversation…or if a mental health specialist came in and sat with them,” Ehaloak said.

The department was unable to provide numbers on how often inmates in segregation have such visits.

“There are unanswered questions and I think it’s safe to assume that these are questions the [justice] minister will have to answer at some point,” said John Main, a Nunavut MLA from the riding of Arviat-North (pictured above, in the middle).

“It’s pretty basic stuff — we want to see good government… acting as they should in an open manner and answering hard questions put to them by residents of Nunavut.”

Ejetsiak, who said he has been in and out of the BCC for the past 30 years, said segregation in Iqaluit is far better than in the southern facilities he has spent time in.

“Here at least you can see the street from the window, you can watch trucks and cars drive by and breathe fresh air,” he said.

But Ejetsiak also said he has felt like he was going crazy in segregation at the BCC, and even tried to commit suicide, showing a long scar on his neck.

“Here at least you can see the street from the window."

Ejetsiak said he finished a 10-day stint in segregation Sept. 26, during which he spent 23 to 23.5 hours in his cell each day. He was allowed outside for fresh air twice in ten days, for half an hour each time. A prison unit with 42 beds only gets fresh air on weekends as well, he added. The Mandella Rules say prisoners are entitled to one hour of exercise outside daily.

“I don’t know exact numbers, but [inmates] get the opportunity for fresh air every day,” Deputy Minister MacKay said.

Gary Arnaquq, 36, another prisoner at the BCC, told VICE News recently he has been in segregation since a big riot on June 20.

Arnaquq, from Qikiqtarjuaq, a 600-person community about 500 kilometres north of Iqaluit on Baffin Island, said he only gets fresh air on weekends, for half an hour each day.

"I feel like an animal."

After the riot, Arnaquq said he spent about five weeks at the Toronto South Detention Centre—all of it in solitary confinement, and he has remained in segregation at the Iqaluit jail since returning in August . By today’s date, that makes it 100 days in segregation.

“I’m being treated like an animal, I feel like an animal,” said Arnaquq.

Justice officials said Sept. 26 that the department does not track whether inmates transferred back to Nunavut have spent time in segregation at other facilities.

Both Ejetsiak and Arnaquq, who have each had multiple stints in segregation, said they have never been in a segregation cell with other prisoners — always alone.

“I started hallucinating once in [segregation], I saw my mattress starting to move,” Arnaquq said.

Cover image of Nunavut Legislative Assembly. All images by Thomas Rohner, an investigative reporter based in Iqaluit. Find him on @thomas_rohner.