As if it was plucked directly from an Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn novella, news concerning one of the most notorious prisons (read: gulag) in Canada is resurfacing right on time for Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s annual visit to the Great Frozen North. The Baffin Correctional Centre, located just on the outskirts of the territorial capital, Iqaluit, remains a closely guarded secret, unknown to all but those whose political fortunes hinge in the balance. While ashamed civil servants in Ottawa have long tried to distance themselves from this particularly gruesome eyesore on the prison system, the responsibility for the correctional centre’s administration has since fallen squarely into the hands of a reluctant territorial government.
In brief, it is a place where time is hoping to be forgotten. But, for Conservatives looking to do battle with the Liberals in the coming federal election by lauding the party’s criminal justice stance, such emphasis on short-term memory loss is understandable. Last year, in a report submitted by Canada’s prison watchdog on the correctional centre, federal correctional investigator Howard Sapers identified the facility as being in a particularly sordid state, concluding that “The conditions of confinement were certainly well below anything I had seen in a federal penitentiary.” Worst yet, there has been scant news that anything has been done, let alone acknowledged, regarding the prison’s dismal state of affairs since the report was filed.
In the report, Sapers went on to describe the conditions of the centre, describing it as being “rife with drugs and illegal contraband.” Wherein, “Inmates live in constant fear of beatings and sexual assaults. It is so overcrowded that prisoners are kept in cells with up to four times the intended occupancy rate. Some cells have no toilets or running water. The prison is filthy, drafty and mouldy. The smell is overpowering.” Sounds terrible? Perhaps that is because it could very likely made the Top 10 list of worst prisons in the world. In fact, Sapers himself puts the Baffin Correctional Centre on par with some of the worst jails he’s seen around the world. “I have visited prisons across Canada and in several spots in the United States and in many places around the world, including China, (South) Korea, the Czech Republic, Singapore,” he said. “The conditions in the Baffin Correctional Centre were certainly as bad as any I’ve seen anywhere.”
While I am all for letting the Conservatives fall on this sword of withering media criticism, there is more at risk than just their beloved criminal justice platform. With its international reputation on the table, Canada can do better than harkening back to a penal system that once even put the “Evil Empire” to shame. In a November 2012 response to questions on the Commons order paper from former Liberal MP Denis Coderre, then-public safety minister Vic Toews repeatedly said the jail belongs to Nunavut and isn’t the federal government’s responsibility. However, in a territory where more than 72% of its revenue comes from federal transfers, it is hard to believe that Conservatives are doing anything more than simply passing the buck in this instance.
In the meantime, any inquiry into available services, programs, or support systems being offered at the Baffin Correctional Centre for the inmates hits a dead-end. Whether or not this is an indication that the information is kept confidential or that the basic correctional amenities are in fact completely lacking may very well be determined in the coming months by political party strategists. However, whichever the case, surely what goes on up there could not be worse than anything that Ivan Denisovich and the rest of the 104th labour-camp team suffered… Right?