Laws governing Nunavut prisons could contravene Charter: report

The laws governing Nunavut’s correctional services may be non-compliant with the Charter of Rights, says a report highlighting the “appalling” state of a prison housing mainly Inuit inmates in the northern territory.

The report was written by two lawyers at the federal Office of the Correctional Investigator. It warns the state of disrepair and overcrowding at Baffin Correctional Centre are “nothing short of appalling.”

Cells are covered in mold, the report says. Inmates are forced to share permanently stained underwear, and some have to sleep on mattresses on concrete floors, due to a lack of beds. Security is poor, and holes in exterior walls have been used to smuggle drugs into the facility, according to the report.

Photos provide a glimpse into the dingy conditions.

Just over two thirds of inmates at the centre are on remand status, presumed innocent, while the remaining 30 per cent are convicted prisoners. The two groups are not separated, “contrary to human rights standards,” states the report.

The findings are based on a three-day site visit during March 12-14, 2013. The report is dated April 2013 but was just posted on the Nunavut Department of Justice’s web site yesterday.

The Office of the Correctional Investigator’s executive director and general counsel Ivan Zinger also reviewed the legislative framework governing the prison.

The Nunavut Corrections Act and related regulations have remained “practically unchanged” for about 25 years, the review found, adding: “Both are now deficient in many key areas.”

For example, the legislation is “silent” on Inuit principles of justice, language, cultural and spiritual rights, and ceremonial and dietary requirements. There are several references to practices that “may be inconsistent with the Charter or evidence-based correctional policy,” the report says.

These include:
•    Use of a strait-jacket for up to 24 hours;
•    Use of chemical restraint (without consent);
•    No correspondence or visits while in segregation;
•    Prohibition to grow a beard or long sideburns; and,
•    Prohibition to have long hair inconsistent with health and safety.

Zinger also found there were no statutory provisions to ensure access to a fair and expeditious complaint and grievance system, without fear of negative consequences.

“Overall, the legal framework is outdated and requires to be modernized to reflect today’s correctional reality and best practices,” the report states.

Toronto lawyer James Morton, head of the litigation group at Steinberg Morton Hope & Israel LLP, regularly works in Nunavut. He agrees Nunavut’s legislative provisions need to be updated, having simply been adopted from Northwest Territory laws when the jurisdictions formerly separated in 1999.

“They were based on the Northwest Territories in the 1970s and nobody’s gone back and amended them,” says Morton.

There is “no question” that the 30-year-old Baffin Correctional Centre is over-crowded, he adds.

However, many of the inmates will be used to crowded housing and public facilities, he argues. “While we should be improving the plant, and there are certainly issues that are real, the impact emotionally on prisoners is less [than if they were from other parts of Canada.]”

Stephen Mansell, Nunavut Department of Justice’s director of policy and planning, said in an e-mailed statement “extensive” work was underway to address the legislative concerns in the report.

Amendments to the Corrections Act are due this year, and the Corrections Division “does not implement the outdated sections of the Act,” he said.

Since the report was written, a new facility has helped to relieve some of the overcrowding. Minor renovations at the Baffin centre have been carried out. An “overcrowding relief structure” in Iqaluit is expected to be completed later this year and is hoped to further alleviate overcrowding at Baffin and allow for the completion of outstanding renovations and repairs, Mansell added.

The Office of the Correctional Investigator had no comment when contacted by Legal Feeds.

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