Prisoners in the Northwest Territories are being comprehensively failed by the territorial Department of Justice, according to a report released on Tuesday.
The Office of the Auditor General’s report says criminals are given little chance to change their ways through rehabilitation programs, there is limited access to mental health services, and “very little guidance” exists to plan for the release of inmates back into the community.
Within the territory’s jails, inmates find themselves segregated without the right approval, contraband is “not adequately monitored” – with rules on searching inmates and visitors sometimes ignored – and inmates of various risk levels are housed together without the right guidance for officers supervising them.
Training for staff is inadequate and not well-tracked, while some front-line staff increased their salaries by more than 50% thanks to hundreds of overtime hours which went unmonitored.
The report makes 14 recommendations for change, all of which the Department of Justice has accepted. The department promises reviews are under way or planned.
Read more: Office of the Auditor General’s full report
“The Department of Justice has not met its key responsibilities for the rehabilitation, safety, and security of inmates within the correction system,” read the report’s summary.
“Serious deficiencies in case management limit the department’s efforts to rehabilitate inmates and prepare them for release back to the community. This means that inmates who were identified as needing programs in areas such as substance abuse, sexual offences, and family violence were not receiving this assistance before returning to their communities.”
A five-person team from the Auditor General’s office began investigating the territory’s corrections service in the spring of 2013, having noted the NWT spent a sizeable sum on corrections – $38 million in 2013-14, roughly a third of the department’s operating expenditures – and had the highest crime rate in Canada.
The Auditor General’s team lacked resources to investigate all five of the territory’s facilities. Instead, the report focuses on male inmates at Yellowknife’s North Slave Correctional Centre, opened in 2004, and the male unit of the older Fort Smith Correctional Complex. The vast majority of the territory’s inmates are Aboriginal and male.
Forty-eight files relating to male inmates were selected at random and examined by the team, working on-site at the facilities. The report examined the work of corrections services between April 1, 2012 and March 31, 2014.
The report’s simple conclusion read: “The Department of Justice has not met its key responsibilities for inmates within the correction system.”
One of its major concerns is a lack of programming to help inmates turn their lives around.
Of the files examined, not one of 25 inmates serving a short sentence (120 days or fewer) had received a case management assessment – which is a check to see which programs could be offered to reduce the chance they will reoffend in future.
As a result, none of those inmates received offence-specific programs.
Roughly half of the NWT’s inmates are serving similarly short sentences.
“The department had not assessed the reasons for their criminal behaviour, nor had it assessed their literacy levels or intellectual functioning to develop plans for their rehabilitation,” read the report.
“Without that information, the department cannot assess whether the programs it offers meet the needs of inmates.”
Inmates serving longer sentences did have those assessments – 18 of 21 sample files had case plans drawn up – but the report found programs were still “not adequately delivered”.
Glenn Wheeler, the audit principal, said: “For example, some inmates who were identified as needing long-term, individual support to cope with alcohol or drug dependency were offered only weekly group Alcoholics Anonymous meetings.”
In response, the Department of Justice pledged to “expand its approach to ensure that all inmates receive appropriate assessments”, and said an initial review would be complete by the fall of 2015.
Almost all of the report’s recommendations were met by a departmental promise to conduct a review, alongside working with other authorities to improve services.
The report found mental health services were sometime barely provided.
“The North Slave Correctional Centre had one psychologist to offer services to approximately 140 inmates, as well as offenders on probation,” it read.
Inmates often waited two to three months to see the psychologist, and that lone position went unstaffed “for an extended period” during 2012, leaving inmates with access to services only one day a week.
In Fort Smith, where the male unit houses “higher-needs inmates such as those with fetal alcohol spectrum disorder or cognitive delays”, inmates had to access psychological, counselling and nursing services remotely from staff in Hay River.
The department says it has added new staff to its program instructor pool and will “conduct a review of its capacity to address the mental health needs of inmates”.
Read: Surviving the past – mental health on the street on Edge YK ($)
When inmates are released, the report said they could find themselves given transport out of the facility, clothes to wear, and little else.
Those inmates’ case managers often stepped in to provide additional help, going beyond the guidelines to help with issues like accommodation and employment.
“The extent of release planning is dependent on the individual case manager,” noted the report.
The safety and security of inmates inside facilities was also questioned.
Requirements for evacuation drills each quarter, and fire inspections each year, appear to have been ignored – none were carried out, at either facility studied, for the two-year duration of the Auditor General’s examination.
Meanwhile, the report said “the department’s own data indicated that the number of violent incidents was on the rise at the North Slave Correctional Centre” – attributed in part to a rise in inmates with southern gang affiliations or mental health concerns – but staff “lacked formal guidance” about the approach they should take in ensuring inmate safety.
Lastly, the report noted that training levels depended on cost savings achieved elsewhere, while overtime costs continued to rise – despite the department receiving money to combat that issue.
Overtime costs at the North Slave Correctional Centre rose from $950,000 in 2012-13 to $1.5 million in 2013-14, even though the department was given $1.2 million to fund 12 new positions in 2010 with a view to reducing overtime expenses.
Tuesday’s report will not be a surprise to the department. The report’s authors say they maintained an “ongoing dialogue” with the department throughout.
Regarding the lack of fire and health inspections, the Auditor General’s office even took the step of writing a letter to the department in September 2014 “due to the serious nature of the findings”.
There will now be a committee hearing in mid-May, in which MLAs will be able to question the justice department’s deputy minister – and the Auditor General – on this report.
Corrections services in the Yukon are set to have a separate Auditor General’s report published on Thursday, with a report into services in Nunavut due for publication next Tuesday, March 10.