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New jails and a new approach

Dawn Ostrem
Northern News Services

Yellowknife (Oct 08/01) - By this time next year two new young offenders facilities should be operating and corrections workers in the NWT are now scurrying to prepare.

Warden Guy Leblanc outside construction for the new male young offenders facility in Yellowknife. - Dawn Ostrem/NNSL


By June 2002, a male offenders facility is expected to be complete in Yellowknife, followed by female unit in Inuvik by the fall.

Plans for a male adult jail are also moving ahead, with a 144-person unit to be attached to the male youth building in Yellowknife. The still unnamed building is to replace the Yellowknife Correctional Centre by December, 2003.

The budget for the three facilities is about $33 million.

"We are racing winter right now," said director of corrections John Dillon about the youth jails.

Both Yellowknife facilities will share kitchen, recreation and medical departments so a large part of the adult jail construction will be done by the time the youth jail, built for about 25 male young offenders, is completed.

Currently, Yellowknife Correctional Centre is a haphazard jigsaw puzzle of additions and portables.

Offenders are packed into dank dormitories that will eventually be replaced by one- and two-person cells.

The trick to keeping the undertaking trouble-free is to keep organization consistently threaded through the transition, explained Guy Leblanc, Yellowknife Correctional Centre warden.

"The construction has started but we are still meeting two or three times a week," he said.

"Things are very, very busy. There have been so many changes in our department."

Long-time Yellowknife Correctional Centre Warden Doug Friesen was officially replaced by Leblanc about a month ago.

Friesen is now in a position that allows him to concentrate solely on the development of both new facilities as a liaison between various groups.

"People were just being stretched way too much," Leblanc explained.

A training committee has started identifying ways for staff to learn the new security, medical, food services and recreational systems, for example, while still operating those at the aging Yellowknife Correctional Centre.

A transition committee started working on ways to establish a non-problematic shuttle system for prisoners when various custodial facilities will dot the territory in the coming months.

It also deals with everything from furnishings to policy and procedure.

The women's adult jail will continue to be at the territorial women's correctional centre in Fort Smith where a another young offenders facility, River Ridge, is also located.

The Hay River young offenders facility was declared unsuitable for secure custody by the territorial fire marshal and will be used for open-custody. A lower-security adult male jail is also in Hay River, bringing the total number of secure-custody jails to five in the NWT by 2003.

"The new facilities are really very much in line with a new philosophy, which we have been on the road of for a while," Leblanc explained saying the NWT is on the cutting-edge of promoting healing behind bars.

"Our offenders are different," he added. "Most of them are not career criminals, they don't have a criminal mind.

"If we take alcohol away from these people, and drugs, in jail you find they are just regular people."

Rooms in the new Yellowknife adult jail were designed with input from elders.

The spiritual room is round, with windows, and the door facing a specific way. A fireplace will be built in the middle of the nearly soundproof room to simulate a canvass covered tepee.

The guards' dress has already been changed to less of a military garb, complete with belt and baton, to less intimidating uniforms.

Corrections staff will travel throughout the territories to collect traditional medicines.

"That is a legitimate thing for a corrections facility to do in the Northwest Territories," Dillon said. "We also have a psychologist who is providing western and aboriginal values in his programming."

By this time next year approximately 21 new jobs can be expected in both Yellowknife and Inuvik to staff the young offenders facilities.

It is still undetermined how many will be lost after Hay River closes to secure custody cases.

"We have a complex population, a diverse population and (before) the system only really answered one need -- to protect the public," Dillon said.

"We can do much better than that."