01/17/2013 05:08 EST | Updated 03/19/2013 05:12 EDT

Nunavut's New Jail Is No Club Fed


Another jail opened in Nunavut last week. It is long overdue -- the existing facility in Iqaluit, Baffin Correctional Centre is, as Justice Mahar of the Nunavut Court of Justice recently said, "notoriously over crowded and under resourced."

BCC, as Baffin Correctional Centre is usually called, is far from the worst jail in Canada. Apart from the grotesque overcrowding it is reasonably good -- the guards are approachable and try to treat the prisoners with respect. The prisoner themselves are (usually but not always) compliant and respectful of the guards and each other. Cultural issues are respected. Virtually all the prisoners are of aboriginal background, usually Inuit; many do not speak English well.

That said, BCC is no fun. The prisoners sleep barracks-style, access to exercise is profoundly restricted and violence, while not common, is an ever-present threat. Don't ask about the food. And what's more transfers to other, far far worse institutions are made on a seemingly arbitrary basis to address the overcrowding issue. Anyone who thinks a Canadian prison, even one as relatively good as BCC, is a pleasant place has never been inside one.

And yet a rather bland factual news story about the opening of the new prison in Rankin was met with a flood of angry comments about over pampered prisoners, club fed hotels and similar complaints.

Many focused their complaints on a couple of asides in the news story. The story noted that, from the outside, the prison looked like a school. Additionally, the new prison is going to attempt to be a place of healing as well as punishment.

These two asides enraged some readers -- many of whom focused on taxpayer money being wasted on criminals. The cost issue is an odd concern, seeing as healing circles are hardly expensive and whether the exterior of a jail looks like a tradition jail or a factory or a school doesn't change the cost of the building.

But to consider each point in turn -- first, making the prison look like something else is not unusual. The mega-prison in Lindsay Ontario looks much like a factory set back from the road. Unless you read the small identifying sign or actually drive up to the door you would not realize you were looking at a prison and not, say, a folding box plant. In the case of the new jail the local residents of Rankin (taxpayers I might add) asked the facility be made to look like a school so as to limit the visual impact on the community.

Dealing with the concept of healing in prison I can state, unequivocally, that the overwhelming majority of crime in Nunavut has a substance abuse component -- usually alcohol. People, usually men, who are decent hard-working individuals drink and become dangerous and violent criminals.

I agree they must be separated from society for a time and punishment is required by society -- but absent treatment these same individuals will be released, get drunk and hurt other people. Treatment is an essential element of criminal justice. And healing from childhood abuse (which is astoundingly common), family suicide (again a regular occupancy) and longstanding alcoholism is necessary if substance abuse is to stop.

The new facility in Rankin is reasonable and necessary -- and it is in no way a pampering of criminals.