Yukon’s Department of Justice officials told members of the legislative assembly during a hearing on Tuesday that the move to the new Whitehorse Correctional Centre building created gaps in programs offered to inmates.
The public accounts committee was meeting after a report of the Auditor General of Canada released last March found gaps in key areas, including how inmates are rehabilitated into their community.
“We found that the department is not providing offenders with sufficient access to rehabilitation programs either inside the Whitehorse Correctional Centre or in the community,” assistant auditor general Ronnie Campbell said at the time.
The focus was on keeping staff, inmates and visitors safe, said Justice officials appearing before the committee.
“We prepared staff, but as far as capacity went, we were challenged,” said Robert Riches, the assistant deputy minister. There were some technological hiccups, he said, given the facility had 400 cameras and every door had to be opened from the control centre.
The length of stay of most inmates – WCC being a territorial jail rather than a federal prison, inmates are there for a maximum sentence of less than two years – is an issue to have rehabilitation programs done, deputy minister Thomas Ullyett told the committee.
“We have a narrow window to work with offenders,” he said.
But the Justice Department was already aware of the issues raised by the report, thanks to their own quality assurance program, said Tricia Ratel, director of corrections.
“From the period of transition when the audit was conducted we’ve improved our outcomes considerably,” she said.
Now all offenders have their primary programming needs met, and 71 per cent had their secondary programming needs met, she told the committee.
In the report, the auditor general found that in a sample of 21 inmates, 13 were not offered all the core programs identified for them.
The committee also questioned justice officials about the lack of training of officers in First Nation culture, despite more than half of inmates being of First Nation descent.
“I feel confident that by the end of this fiscal year, everyone will have been trained,” said Ratel, who outlined that 69 correctional officers and seven probationary officers had received the training since the audit had been released.
The bachelor of social work offered at Yukon College that most correctional officers graduated from does incorporate elements of First Nation culture, Ratel said.
The department also had to deal with issues of intellectual property surrounding the programs offered – they couldn’t simply modify it to include Yukon-specific elements.
“We’re very much aware that the First Nations in the Yukon have their own unique history and culture, and that is a challenge with respect to programs,” said Ullyett, adding the department had put out a tender for program development.
Justice officials are working with First Nations elders, Ullyett told the committee. He also said that WCC is incorporating First Nations elements into everyday life at the jail, by offering traditional food at the correctional centre, beading and carving workshops, First Nation language courses and some traditional medicines available at the health services.
While 67 per cent of inmates are of First Nations descent, they only represent eight per cent of staff.
“The greatest challenge is that they are connected to the offenders,” Ratel said.
Justice officials also told the committee the adoption of new computer system for keeping statistics by 2017 will help – right now, data is compiled by hand.
In order to better work with offenders once they’ve been released in the community, the Department of Justice is moving two of its probationary officers from Whitehorse to Dawson City and Watson Lake, where they will be based.
“Whitehorse probation officers won’t have to travel as far as before,” said Ratel.
Currently probation officers in the Yukon each deal with 45 cases on average, placing them among the lowest case loads across Canada, with an average of 90 to 120 cases for officers across the country. But that comparison overlooks how some Yukon probation officers have to travel extensively to communities, Ratel noted.
Finally, the Justice Department also reviewed their strategies around staffing at the jail.
“Where before the staffing model was fairly flat, there is now a career trajectory for correctional officers who want to make corrections their career path,” said Ratel.
When correctional officers job openings are posted, the department now receives dozens of applications from across the country, Ratel said.
“I think those are good indicators of the success that we’ve had in building our staff and in the success of the new staffing model,” she said.
As Liz Hanson adjourned the meeting, she reminded people that the committee’s work was not over yet.
“The committee may follow up with the department on the implementation of the commitments made in response to the recommendations of the auditor general and of the committee itself,” she said, adding this could take the form of a public hearing.
Contact Pierre Chauvin at firstname.lastname@example.org