10/27/2011 01:58 EDT | Updated 12/27/2011 05:12 EST

Nunavut jail already bursting at the seams and it could get worse

IQALUIT, Nunavut - It was a small fire, touched off last Thursday in a prison washroom by three inmates.

Adjacent prisoners were evacuated and the blaze quickly extinguished.

But the safety concerns it has rekindled over Nunavut's aging, overcrowded jails won't be doused so easily — especially as the Conservative's government's impending tough-on-crime legislation adds fuel to the fire.

"I’m concerned with Bill C-10, the federal government’s omnibus crime bill that they’re coming up with," Nunavut Justice Minister Keith Peterson said in the territorial legislature this week.

All provinces and territories expect an inmate surge once the legislation takes effect. But in Nunavut, where the crime rate is highest and the resources to deal with it are lowest, the impact is likely to be the heaviest.

Janet Slaughter, deputy minister of justice, lays it out: "We are in a unique situation in Nunavut.

"The level of violent crime has been a concern to all of us for a long time and within the omnibus bill, that particular category of criminal activity is highlighted as a focus. We have no treatment facility for counselling and addictions, and that is the driving force behind much of the criminal activity in this territory — the alcoholism and mental illness and domestic violence."

Instead of treating the root causes of the type of crime plaguing the eastern Arctic — Nunavut's sexual assault rate is up to 12 times the national average — Bill C-10 offers mandatory minimum jail sentences.

Those prisoners will have to go somewhere.

Slaughter has been told to expect a 15 per cent rise in the inmate population. That figure, she said, "may well be higher," but even Ottawa's estimate will create problems.

The territory's one jail — the Baffin Correctional Centre where last week's fire was lit — was built to hold 46 prisoners. It now routinely houses between 85 and 95 inmates, bunking them down on the floor in what was once the prison gym.

Last year, the territory's then-fire marshall said BCC is so overcrowded, run down and badly built that jailing inmates there amounts to criminal negligence.

A new 48-bed facility in Rankin Inlet is expected to open by next spring, but that is likely to be packed as soon as it opens.

"It's not big enough," Slaughter said.

It gets worse.

Unlike the rest of Canada, Nunavut's crime rate continues to rise. It's also the youngest population in Canada, the demographic that commits most crimes.

Nunavut has long transferred some of its inmates to other provinces and territories. But with those jurisdictions expecting their own crowding problems, such transfers could end.

"They are indicating they will not likely be able to continue to take our inmates at the same level as they have in the past," said Slaughter.

Nunavut is already musing about temporary prisons.

Slaughter suggested unused buildings in Iqaluit could be converted. Peterson said the government is considering so-called "sprung structures" — buildings constructed from an aluminum frame and covered with an insulated membrane, already used by some U.S. jurisdictions.

The territorial government has no estimates yet on what the new federal crime bill will cost, but resources in Nunavut are stretched tighter than most places.

"In December 2009, I did actually ask for some assistance to look at renovating, upgrading, or expanding (BCC) and asked for $300,000," Peterson said in the legislature.

"We got a clear message from the House that investing in prisons in Nunavut is not something that is important. Unfortunately, schools, gymnasiums, and community halls are a high priority."

Nunavut's inmates — the great majority of whom are still awaiting trial, or face charges stemming from substance abuse problems — may end up paying the price, Slaughter said.

"The density of the population means that our correctional staff are focused on safety and containment," she said. "And on many levels, the programming aspects have to be set aside in order to meet the sheer need of placing bodies."

— By Bob Weber in Edmonton