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Behind the concrete and barbed wire

Kathleen Lippa
Northern News Services

Yellowknife (Mar 29/04) - Inside the Baffin Correctional Centre everything is blue -- the towels, the clothes inmates wear, the plastic trays used at dinner time.

When I returned home after spending two different shifts -- one on a Thursday night and one a Monday night -- shadowing BCC corrections officers, I noticed the blue towels in my house right away.

NNSL Photo
Kathleen Lippa

All of a sudden, I didn't like them.

I spent roughly 10 hours inside the BCC shadowing two corrections officers to get an idea of what it's like to live and work there.

The director of corrections, Ron McCormick, and the warden, Andrea Smith, decided that only a select few staff and absolutely no inmates would know I was a journalist.

Shadow games

I was to be treated as a "shadow," someone who is planning on working at the facility.

McCormick called me at my office a week before I was scheduled to go in. He asked me if I was okay with everything.

He said I sounded nervous.

"I'm fine," I said. "It's just that I usually don't get to spend this much time on one story."

It was all that time that was making me anxious.

Interestingly, time is the crux of the issue once you enter the BCC -- killing it, spending it, counting it, scratching it on the wall, tapping it out on the floor, counting the days or the hours until you get out.

I expected the inmates to be harsh, crude and scary, so I dressed down for my first visit.

I wore no make-up (now that's scary!), I slicked my hair back into a tight pony tail and wore a black fleece, blue jeans and white Nike sneakers.

I expected the inmates to cat call me because they don't see many females but they were respectful. I was just a new face. Some inmates whistled at me, asked me my name in Inuktitut (many thought I was Inuk because of my dark skin tone), but that was about it.

When I said I was a shadow, one inmate said "Where is the sun?" and laughed.

What stands out after my short time there was how bleak it all was. How ordinary. How blue.

What really goes on?

How many games of cards can you play? How many TV shows and movies can you watch?

There is no question that television and movies have warped the public's idea of what jail is like.

Guards at the BCC are not like stereotypical guards, all tough and unsmiling.

The corrections officers here, at least the ones I met, tend to be on the side of the inmates. That is what I observed.

"They are my guys," one corrections officer told me later.

That same corrections officer also told me that I have "no idea" what really goes on at BCC, that 10 hours is not enough time to get a real sense of the place.

I suspect a million hours would not allow a journalist to see everything.

I also signed a waiver agreeing not to publish anything "that might violate the privacy of inmates or the security and safety of BCC operations."

I could also not write anything to identify inmates, such as describing their tattoos.

There's a sign at the Baffin Correctional Centre I have noticed in other workplaces, like hospitals: "What you see here, what you hear, let it stay here."

But even after I signed the waiver, I was under no such obligations when I entered BCC. I was there to report. And what I felt at the end was, well, blue.

I don't know whether it violates any security to say that jail is no place for me.

Maybe with the right training, I could learn how to work in a jail.

But there is a sadness, a depression, a shuffling of feet in those inmates that I do not like to see in anyone.

I don't know how much training I would need to see past that and not be haunted by all the blue.