behind iron bars no more

Some day next month - nobody will say exactly when or how - inmates housed at the Whitehorse Correctional Centre will be quietly moved to new digs next door.

Some day next month – nobody will say exactly when or how – inmates housed at the Whitehorse Correctional Centre will be quietly moved to new digs next door.

Compared to the cluster of rag tag buildings and razor wire that currently contains them, this grand new $70-million edifice, complete with its full glass front, seems practically palatial.

From the outside it could pass for a luxury resort or at least a swanky casino.

One curious young wag even wondered if it had a waterslide.

Who knows what he’d think if he knew it does have private rooms with 17-inch TVs and eight channels.

At first blush, Chateau Whitehorse is enough to bring out the inner conservative in even the most liberal among us.

Such decadence for the least deserving is hard to digest.

But before we get on our high horses, we should take a deep breath and consider the reality.

The current jail was built in 1967 for 36 inmates. Today it houses nearly triple that. More than 100 men serve their time in outdated and often crowded dormitories, with little programming and even littler chance of rehabilitation. Half a dozen women stay in a separate annex.

Inmates complain they’re treated like “dogs in a cage” and staff complain about unsafe conditions.

Clearly it’s not working for anyone.

Just ask jail aficionado Bob Riches.

The government’s lead man on the new jail, Riches has poured his decades of prison work experience into this project to make it a model for reform.

This week, as he toured the media around what he considers to a be “dream jail,” he went to great lengths to explain the shift in thinking when it comes to dealing with those who break the law. And the rationale behind some of the jail’s spiffy new features – high ceilings, abundant use of natural light, wooden and steel doors instead of iron bars, individual cells. And of course the TVs.

A central television shared by many inmates is bad for a few reasons, he says. It’s loud and noisy and makes it hard for others to relax or concentrate. It can also be divisive when inmates can’t agree on what to watch. And there’s always a TV hog.

Removing the TV goes a long way towards keeping “the pressure down,” he says.

That in turn goes a long way towards keeping everything under control.

These days corrections officials believe it’s better to help inmates maintain a more normal life and prevent adaptation to institutional life.

“So when you come here you’ll be able, if you chose, to do your time in your cell, to be able to attend your programs, do your case management, but you’ll never have to be involved with folks you don’t want to be involved with,” Riches told reporters. “It works really well.”

And it sounds like it should.

Soon we’ll get to see if it does.