The guards must be crazy

Changing the culture within the Yukon correctional system is tough. Changing the culture within a correctional system in a country torn apart by a…

Changing the culture within the Yukon correctional system is tough.

Changing the culture within a correctional system in a country torn apart by a 10-year civil war is Herculean.

Simone Arnold, a former correctional officer, is attempting both.

Arnold leaves the Yukon for Sierra Leone this month to help redevelop the small country’s prison system.

She will be supervising the prison that holds a dozen civil war leaders awaiting trial for war crimes and crimes against humanity.

Political corruption and economic strife caused a civil war that ripped through Sierra Leone, small West African country, for 10 years.

The country is diamond rich and has been plagued with the violence that follows the rare gemstone, as depicted in the movie Blood Diamond.

 The war ended with the help of UN forces and the new democratic government established the Special Court of Sierra Leone in 2002.

The court’s mandate is to prosecute war crimes and crimes against humanity— mass murder, the use of child soldiers — committed by both sides over the previous 10 years.

Estimates put the death toll at 50,000, while millions more were forced from their homes.

Arnold will be supervising staff in the prison that currently holds those awaiting trial.

There are about a dozen leaders of different factions awaiting trial.

In 10 years of war, there’s a lot of bad blood and festering psychological wounds that some might feel require retribution.

“All staff members are recovering from the war and the personal problems stemming from that,” says Arnold.

A jail is one place in need of intense redevelopment to meet international standards, as in any war torn country, says Arnold.

“They have their own forms of justice,” she says.

“Can you imagine the constant killing and maiming and raping that they lived with for 10 years?”

While flipping through a photo album of her last trip to Sierra Leone two years ago, Arnold’s mother, Anne Geddes, browses the coffee mugs at Java Connection.

This will be a decidedly longer trip — one year.

And stretching that mother-daughter bond across the Atlantic will be demanding, says Arnold.

“But we’ll have email and the phone, even though Mom has trouble with the long pause (on international calls),” she adds.

“I just keep talking and talking through the silence,” laughs Geddes.

During that trip, kids mobbed tourists for money. Extreme poverty and danger was the norm.

“I saw kids in the street fighting with dogs over garbage,” she says.

Violence and thievery increased in Freetown, a city of one million, when the civil war ended, but the danger is something one has to endure, says Arnold.

“But you wouldn’t go walking in downtown Whitehorse at two in the morning by yourself,” she adds.

Arnold saw the same problems within Kosovo’s struggling prison system in 2002.

There she worked as a prison supervisor for a volunteer UN mission.

As part of a UN agreement, Kosovo was undergoing massive redevelopment, including the prison system, and required international expertise.

It was a tough job, says Arnold.

“The staff was taught during the war to torture and other criminal activity,” she says.

“It’s the same with any war-torn country. There’s corruption in any country where people have no food, no water, no shelter.”

For nine months, she worked in seven prisons, helped develop prison policy and recruited and trained 350 people.

Born in the Yukon, the 40-year-old Arnold spent much of her life in Alberta, including a 12-year stint as a correctional officer at the First Nations healing centre in Hobbema, the first such facility in Canada.

Before heading to Sierra Leone, Arnold was the project manager for the Justice department’s redevelopment plan for the courts and prison system.

The plan is focused on improving the cultural experience for First Nations, who make up a disproportionate number of inmates, in the corrections system.

Arnold promoted the First Nations-focus philosophy in corrections as part of the management team and has spent a year working as a supervisor in Whitehorse Corrections Centre.

“To change a philosophy — a new way of corrections — when Joe Blow public or the corrections staff, when they don’t understand, is an ongoing effort,” says Arnold.

While Arnold heads to Africa, some of her friends are working in corrections in Beirut, Nepal and the Balkans.

It’s a tightknit group of international colleagues that revel in the global experience, she says.

But it’s the Canadian experience sought by the UN officials.

“Canada is hugely advanced in corrections and the UN recognizes that and uses us in many different places,” she says.

Perhaps it’s the introduction of cultural programming in the jails that has the international community looking here for advice.

That’s the knowledge that Arnold brings to different countries, she says.

Taking part in two UN missions is an honour, even though some people described her travels as crazy, says Arnold.

“Going from one point on the Earth to the other is something everyone should do,” she says.

“I feel like I’m making a difference. I’m like a sponge. I want to absorb everything around me.”

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