Inside Canada's Remote Arctic Jails and Their 'Disturbing' Conditions

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Prisoners in northern Quebec are being subjected to "deplorable" conditions, everything from overcrowding to limited access to water and around-the-clock cell confinement, according to a scathing new report from the province's ombudsman.

Raymond Saint-Germain's hard look at the correctional system in the territory of Nunavik exposes a "substandard" judicial system that the region's overwhelmingly Indigenous population faces.

The report also takes issue with the system's lack of crime prevention measures and that it doesn't take into account the specific characteristics of the province's northern expanse, where about 11,000 people live.

"The investigation showed that deplorable detention conditions are tolerated in Nunavik, conditions that are below even the lowest acceptable standards and that are a serious violation of rights, including the right to dignity," Saint-Germain said at a press conference on Thursday.

In April, Saint-Germain visited three villages in Nunavik, that is home to the Quebec's Inuit population.

Because there isn't a single correctional facilities in Nunavik, detainees are held at the Kativik Regional Police Force Station — operated by the Kativik Regional Government — or a holding cell, where they stay until they're released or transferred to a correctional facility in southern Quebec, to wait for their hearings.

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Saint-Germaine found detainees' rights in Nunavik, and especially in Puvirnituq, were being violated in a number of ways — insufficient and unsanitary facilities; unsanitary and obsolete equipment or no equipment at all; promiscuity due to overcrowding; detainees with "incompatible profiles" being thrown together (people who are intoxicated are sharing cells with people who are about to go to court); and cell confinement 24 hours a day.

Anyone who does end up being transferred to a southern correctional facility is removed from their family and community support, according to the report. In addition, Saint-Germain found a language barrier makes it harder for detainees from Nunavik to argue for their rights to be respected.

This isn't the first case of disturbing prison conditions in Canada's north. Iqaluit's notoriously squalid Baffin Correctional Centre, in the territory of Nunavut, was again in the news after inmates revealed they had not been outside for two and a half months — an apparent reprimand for an increase in smuggling. Nunavut is one of the only jurisdictions in Canada that does not have an independent watchdog monitoring prison conditions.

"Today's report from Quebec is very disturbing," said Howard Sapers, Canada's federal prison watchdog, noting that it corroborates his own findings that detention conditions in Canada's north often fail to meet minimum standards for safe and humane custody. "These sub-standard conditions are overwhelmingly experienced by Indigenous people in remote locations. Today, Indigenous people represent 25% of all federally sentenced offenders and many have entered penitentiaries after having been first locked up in deplorable and debilitating settings."

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Saint-Germaine's 19 recommendations to the Quebec government included lowering the cell occupancy rate, avoiding throwing together detainees with incompatible profiles, giving detainees a safe space to spend time outdoors, ensuring cameras are angled in such a way that toilets aren't in view, keeping suicide intervention equipment at hand and making sure officers can use it, and overcoming the language barrier.

The report also addresses the "human consequences" associated with having to transport Inuit offenders from Nunavik to a courthouse in Amos for their bail hearing and back to the north for their trial in Itinerant Court, which serves eight different communities.

The delays and long distances can result in up to 14 days passing between a person's arrest and their bail hearing — significantly higher than the three-day maximum allowed by Canada's Criminal Code.

To resolve this issue, the ombudsman has recommended creating an airlift between Abitibi-Témiscamingue and Nunavik, grouping of Inuit detainees in the future Amos correctional facility, and starting to use videoconferencing and other technology for court appearances.

Follow Tamara Khandaker on Twitter: @anima_tk
Photo by Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press