The dorm fight momentarily drowned out Veronica Germaine’s voice.
The 30-year-old inmate was calling from the women’s quarters at the Whitehorse Correctional Centre on Friday afternoon.
“There’s a lot of women in limited space,” said Germaine, who was sharing the 574-square-foot dorm with nine others.
“We’re trying to get along, but it’s up and down.”
It’s not a healthy environment, especially for the two pregnant inmates, she said.
“If people get in a fight and they get in the way, they get hurt.”
Cramming a bunch of women together in two small rooms creates “a highly stressed situation,” said Lydia Bardak, executive director of NWT’s John Howard Society, a prisoner advocacy group.
“If you put nine healthy women in a dorm together for months at a time, that would be stressful,” she said.
“But then if you look at what some of these women have in common, poor problem-solving skills, poor language skills, low education levels, easily frustrated and put them together — it’s Survivor, correctional style.”
It’s also not safe for jail staff because frustrated, stressed inmates are more likely to act out, said Bardak.
Modern jails are attempting to move from dorms to individual cellblocks that offer more privacy, said Marino Casebeer, past president of the NWT John Howard Society board.
“It’s not just about privacy, it’s about humane treatment,” he said.
“There’s a public perception, sometimes, that since people have violated the law, they deserve all they get.
“So there’s not much political pressure ever to improve situations.”
There’s public outcry about zoo animals being kept in tiny cages, said Casebeer.
“Yet we don’t seem to care about humans being in even smaller enclosures.”
At the correctional centre, female inmates with “mental problems are thrown in with the rest of the population,” said Germaine.
On Friday, eight female inmates signed a petition asking that the remaining inmate be moved because she was a problem, she added.
Instead, corrections officers moved two other women, including Kerry Nolan, who spoke candidly about conditions at the jail last week.
At the time, she was worried about repercussions.
Nolan complained about being removed from the dorm and was hassled by a guard, said her sister Dawn Cowan on Friday.
“After he provoked her, Kerry lost it and swore,” said Cowan.
“Now she’s being charged for verbally abusing a guard.”
Nolan was thrown in The Hole, added Cowan.
Both Nolan and Germaine talked about the lack of programming for women at the jail.
Germaine, who is in WCC for assaulting her partner, grew up in group homes.
“I was sexually, mentally and emotionally abused from the age of five to 14,” she said.
“That’s led me to be an angry person.”
There is only one psychiatrist at the jail and Germaine waited more than two months for an assessment, she said.
Germaine made her own appointments with Alcohol and Drug Services and the Family Violence Prevention Unit.
“I had to get permission from my caseworker to see them,” she said.
In the past eight months, Germaine has seen an Alcohol and Drug Services worker once, and a Family Violence Prevention worker twice, she said.
If prisoners aren’t offered programs or rehabilitation it becomes a community safety issue, said Bardak.
“It means that these ladies are quite likely to re-offend,” she said.
“But they’re also coming out angry and hurt, and angry people aren’t really healthy.”
Prisons are meant to punish people, said Bardak.
“But they also release people into the community. And there needs to be some programs and rehabilitation to ensure the safety of the community upon release.”
The jail has two addictions workers, two mental health nurses, a designated anger and violence program counsellor and a psychiatrist on contract, said Sandy Bryce, victim services manager for the Family Violence Prevention Unit.
If there are enough women, then programs are offered in a group setting, she said.
Otherwise inmates get one-on-one treatment.
“The counsellors see everyone on a regular basis,” said Bryce.
“We have a very successful women offender program in the community and in the institution.”
Not so, said legal aid lawyer Emily Hill.
“That’s not been my experience or the experience of my clients,” she said Wednesday.
“They sit for long periods of time without getting any programming,” she said.
“And when programming is offered it’s few and far between and it’s very short.
“It’s not ongoing programming.”
Local judges are aware of the situation, said Hill.
“Our judges know when they send people to jail they’re not getting treatment,” she said.
“If you want treatment it’s best to keep people out of jail.”
As defence counsel, Hill often recommends keeping people out of jail for treatment.
“I’ll make the pitch that if you want to get this person dealing with whatever their problem is — anger management or drinking — then keep them out in the community,” she said.
The biggest issue is that the territory has no transition home for female inmates, said Germaine.
“Guys have the (Adult Resource Centre), but we’re just stuck here,” she said.
“There’s nothing to help us immigrate back into the community.”
There is no ARC for women, said Justice spokesperson Chris Beacom.
“There was a house — a place with beds — but it’s no longer operating,” he said.
When inmates serve their full sentence and are released directly from prison to the community, there’s much more likelihood of repeat offending than if someone gets a graduated release into a halfway program, according to National Parole Board statistics.
“That’s why conditional releases were brought in long ago,” said Bardak.
“It’s an important part of our correctional system and without it we set people up to fail because they’re just turned loose from the prison gates with no requirements, no reporting, no supervision — nothing.”
The public has a hard time understanding that when people are jailed, they’re isolated, said Casebeer.
“They had some kind of a problem in the first place trying to interact with society,” he said.
So it doesn’t make sense to isolate inmates without offering them programming and skill development, then let them out into society again, said Casebeer.
Any kind of loss of programming in jail takes away from a person’s future, he said.
“A lot of the public isn’t all that sympathetic to the plight of prisoners,” said Bardak.
“But they’re part of our community.
“That means there’s people working with them and we’re going to be living with them down the road, so we are trying to broaden people’s perspective.”