Inside Canada's Arctic Prison

Yellowknife photographer Pat Kane had the rare opportunity to visit the North Slave Correctional Centre in the Northwest Territories. Here's what he saw.

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okt 14 2015, 9:00am

A Cree inmate looks out the window.

This article appears in the Canadian VICE Magazine's October Prison Issue

The third floor of the Northwest Territories' largest jail smelled delicious: Butter Lovers Act II microwave popcorn, to be specific. The scent was wafting up from the the inmates' living quarters, through the hallway vents.

The commissary officer told me the popcorn is popular because it's the cheapest food on offer, at $ .80 (€ .50) a bag, compared to a $1.50 (€1) for chips—a significant savings when you're locked up.

With a capacity of roughly 150 inmates, the North Slave Correctional Centre in Yellowknife is the hub for offenders in Canada's arctic. It houses both the most violent criminals and minimum-security inmates. Many come from remote communities in the Northwest Territories, while others come from the neighboring eastern territory, Nunavut, as part of an agreement to help deal with their high crime rates, poor prison conditions, and overburdened system.

The inmates appear to live relatively comfortable lives. It's no five-star hotel, but there are amenities and creative outlets for passing the time and staying fit. In many ways, Yellowknife's correctional center is simply the safest place for offenders who will be released back to the community. In larger facilities in southern Canada, it's not uncommon for Northern inmates, especially Inuit, to be taunted or intimidated into concealing contraband or joining gangs. The Indigenous programs here—which include a sweat lodge and smudging ceremonies developed by and for people from the communities—don't just help inmates pass the time, but also keep them connected to their culture.

Traditional healing aside, it's still a jail with concrete walls and windows that look out at barbed-wire fencing.

Inside Pod B, a group of about 30 inmates were playing cards, watching TV, or doing nothing at all. The pod is shaped like a half-circle and has a lower and upper level of cells. In one of them, inspirational quotes like, "Quit drinking. Hustle that cash. Flip every thing," are scratched into the walls like a pre-internet Tumblr page for prisoners.

While the inmates in Pod B were keeping busy, others were upstairs prepping potatoes and burgers for the night's dinner. In the arts and crafts room, an inmate showed me a tiny bouquet of colorfully beaded roses.

"I made these the other day. Took me a couple hours to do each one," he said as he looked out the window, the lake just barely visible past the rolling outcrops on the other side of the fence. "I really like flowers, but I don't know why."

An unused cell in B Pod. Inmates receive mattresses, pillows, and blankets when they arrive.

Graffiti on a wall of a cell.

The sweat lodge.

Arvin Landry, traditional healing counsellor, displays his smudge bowl.

The "yard" behind B Pod.

Obstacle course diagram.

An inmate looks at a mural he painted in 2012.

A look at the traditional healing room where group meetings and ceremonies take place. Inmates use jackets and animal hides as cushions.

The hallway between pods.

The commissary. Popcorn is the biggest seller.

Each Pod has cupboards like these, filled with VHS tapes.

Here's what inmates have to watch.

An Inuk inmate from Nunavut.

Traditional country food like caribou, arctic char, seal, and muktuk (whale blubber) are offered to inmates every few days.

Warnings about the health risks of DIY prison tattoos.

Skull and headdress sketches by one of the inmates.

A mural of a wolf pack in the visitor's area.

An inmate's bouquet of beaded roses. Inmates paint, draw, and bead to pass the time and send to family as gifts.

The North Slave Correctional Centre overlooks the Robertson head frame, a towering relic of the former Con Mine.

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