Justice plan reiterates old promises for a new prison

Years ago, the Yukon government and First Nations agreed the territory’s corrections system was a shambles.

Years ago, the Yukon government and First Nations agreed the territory’s corrections system was a shambles.

But they’ve only recently agreed to work together to improve it.

After three years of consultation, discussion and drafts, the territory and the Council of Yukon First Nations have formally released a guiding document for reforming the local system, dubbed the Corrections Redevelopment Strategic Plan.

One key part of the strategy is to build a new jail, which the plan refers to as a “multi-level security healing centre.”

“The building is needed and there’s a commitment that it will be built within this government’s mandate,” said Bob Riches, the Yukon’s assistant deputy minister of community justice and public safety.

But a new building is only one piece of the plan.

“The changes that we’re making aren’t dependent on the construction of a new correctional centre; the big change is in the types of programs and partnerships with First Nations and non-governmental organizations,” said Riches.

The Yukon Justice department website contains links to the strategic plan and information on the current corrections facilities.

It also notes: “The WCC redevelopment project is underway. We expect that the new facility will be complete in 2005.”

The jail, originally built in the mid-1960s, houses more than 70 inmates on average — more than 70 per cent of whom are First Nations.

A 1995 report, by Edmonton-based architects, said the government was obligated to build a new facility.

The Yukon fire marshal has been delivering the same message for years.

And 20 of the 53 complaints Yukon ombudsman Hank Moorlag received in 2005 year were from corrections centre inmates.

Over the past few years, the facility has seen its share of breakouts and at least one break-in.

The recently released 20-page plan lays out further problems with the current system.

Neither the Whitehorse Correctional Centre nor the available programming is structured to assist offenders when they most need help, according to the plan.

It “has not fostered a culture of professionalism and respect,” it reads.

“There is no coherent philosophy for why correctional services are delivered, no common understanding of how these services should be delivered and no structured method for evaluating whether programs have been successful,” it continues.

“WCC is not the ideal place, but they’re trying to work with it until we get a new jail in place,” said Brenda Jackson, Council of Yukon First Nations’ justice program manager.

“Our vision is to not have our people incarcerated in jail.

“That they have healthy lifestyles that takes them down a different path.

“This is a stepping stone to get from A to B,” she added.

“We’ve had the opportunity to be involved every single step of the way,” said Jackson.

“They’ve been working with us and meeting with us and showing us drafts to make sure they reflect First Nations values.”

In time, positive changes in the corrections system will ripple out and affect not only the offenders, but also their families and communities, said Jackson.

Although the plan is a good first step in revamping Yukon’s corrections system, it hit a few snags along the way, she said.

She has had trouble convincing the government to adopt some First Nations’ ideas that haven’t yet been documented.

“We come from a Yukon First Nations perspective. We talk to the government about something like the importance of elders’ teaching, which has always been done orally, and we don’t have any research documents that prove getting guidance and direction from elders is good enough to change somebody’s lifestyle.

“They see it from one point of view and they see it from another point of view,” she said.

Despite the challenges, the government’s relationship with First Nations has improved dramatically over the past few years.

“It’s not going to go along glitch free, but we’re in a really good situation right now to overcome the problems.

“(The government) is open to it; they’re thinking about it, whereas in the past when we did this originally in 2001, they weren’t,” said Jackson.

“It’s not the best plan that there is out there, and we’re not the best at corrections, but we’re hoping to be.”

The Council of Yukon First Nations represents 11 of Yukon’s 14 First Nations.

Yukon Justice Minister Marian Horne did not respond to interview requests before press time.