01/29/2015 07:55 EST | Updated 03/31/2015 05:59 EDT

Baffin Correctional Centre inmates say basic rights denied

Inmates at the Baffin Correctional Centre in Iqaluit say tensions are reaching a boiling point because basic rights — such as practising their religion, and having access to fresh air and recreation — are being denied.

CBC News has agreed to withhold the name of a Muslim man in custody at the correctional centre who fears he will lose his privileges. He has been charged with assault and assault with a weapon.

Like many at the correctional centre, he is on remand, meaning he is in custody awaiting trial. People on remand have been charged with a crime, but have not yet been found guilty, and could be found not guilty. 

The man says he's not free to practise his religion and cooks have refused to respect his dietary restrictions.

"Staff here told me that I don't need to practise my religion because I might become radical," he says. "I asked for no pork or no ham or bacon, and they just gave me what has touched bacon or ham, but I have refused those meals."

Inmates at institutions in the provinces have a toll-free number to call if they feel their rights are violated, the man says, but that's not available at the Baffin Correctional Centre.

Other inmates tell CBC News they are lucky to use the exercise yard once per week for 30 minutes and guards have clamped down on board games such as chess and Scrabble.

Conditions 'unhealthy:' defence lawyer

Defence lawyer James Morton has visited the jail many times and has written articles for national publications in which he talks about the sad state of Canada's "cardboard prison."

"It sounds like a bit of a joke, but the fact is that the physical plant at BCC is such that you can in places actually poke a hole through the wall," he says.

Despite the problems, Morton said most inmates he deals with prefer the correctional centre to enormous, dehumanizing federal prisons in the south.

But the poor conditions take their toll.

"Being inside all the time is unhealthy and claustrophobic, and frankly makes it hard for the guards as well," he says. "This is not an easy situation for them."

Denying fresh air and board games isn't a constitutional breach of rights, but Morton said an argument could be made that overcrowding amounts to cruel and unusual punishment.

Morton said while convicted inmates have committed crimes, most are not hardened criminals. He said the prisoners are no longer mainly Inuit.

"There are Muslim prisoners. I've brought Qur'ans to BCC. There are people of different backgrounds and faith and that's going to become more and more the case over time," Morton said.

The Nunavut Court of Justice recognizes conditions at the facility, and tends to credit two days for every one day spent in remand at the correctional centre when sentencing offenders — although Morton says the current Canadian guideline is one-to-one credit.   

A report released last year by the Office of the Correctional Investigator found that the facility, built in 1986, is "well past its life expectancy" and that "cells are overcrowded beyond acceptable standards of safe and humane custody."

The institution was initially designed for 41 minimum-security inmates. When the Office of the Correctional Investigator conducted its visit and review in March 2013, 106 inmates were housed there.

A new facility is scheduled to open this spring in Iqaluit to relieve some of the overcrowding at the Baffin Correctional Centre. It's expected to have a capacity of about 50 inmates. 

Nunavut Justice officials say they plan to comment on the inmates' concerns later this week.