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New jail ensures fewer idle hands

The inmates at the Whitehorse Correctional Centre got more than a new building last year. They also got much busier schedules. "This is a completely different style of jail.

The inmates at the Whitehorse Correctional Centre got more than a new building last year. They also got much busier schedules.

“This is a completely different style of jail. It’s a completely new job, really. The differences are huge, and what we have to offer over here as compared to the old jail is incredible,” said programs officer Michael Tuton.

Tuton is responsible for delivering programming to jail residents. He teaches courses like violence prevention, substance abuse management and cognitive skills.

Tuton was a corrections officer at the old jail. He sees a lot less vandalism and violence now, and the space is safer for both officers and inmates, he said.

He filled one of two new programs officer positions created along with the move to the new space.

Now inmates have a lot more to do, and a lot more space to do it in.

Not everyone, however, is happy with all of the changes, said Tuton.

At the new facility, inmates are under constant direct supervision by officers. Each unit has an officer present at all times, unless the inmates are locked in their cells.

In the old building, inmates lived in dormitory-style cell blocks and officers would come around only for hourly checks.

Being under constant supervision can cause some frustrations, Tuton said.

“They sort of ran the units over there, whereas now it’s run by us.”

“It’s a busy little jail,” said Valerie Mosser, the deputy superintendent for programs.

Mosser’s job is to keep everyone as busy as possible with work, programs and other activities.

At the old jail, there was only one room available for all programming.

“We had a programs room, slash it was our visits room, slash AA meeting room. It was used for a multitude of different things,” said Mosser.

Now there is a programs room in each of the five units in the jail, as well as a gathering room for when more space is required.

“It’s a godsend to come over here,” she said.

Tuton and his partner work alternating four-day shifts, so that there is a programs officer on duty every day.

Based on consultation with case managers, he will determine which unit will benefit most from what programming.

“We’ll put it up in the units and send them a letter saying, ‘You’re signed up,’ and give them a schedule of when it’s going to start.”

He will teach one unit for an hour and a half in the morning, and move to a second unit to teach in the afternoon. Tuton is available outside of class time to work one-on-one with anyone who is struggling with the material.

There’s lots going on besides the courses that Tuton and his partner teach.

Alcoholics Anonymous comes in twice a week for meetings. Elders and counsellors come in to work with inmates. Workers from the Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Society Yukon come in to work with those who have been diagnosed with FASD.

A Yukon College instructor comes in five days a week to teach courses like safe food handling and first aid.

Local artist Calvin Morberg recently came in to run a carving program with some of the inmates. Together they created a large circular wooden panel carving. Each of the inmates in the program also got to make their own mask.

“Some of the artwork that comes out of here is beautiful,” said Tuton. “There’s some really talented people in here.”

Sixty-five per cent of the prison population is aboriginal, and there has been an increased focus on delivering programming with a First Nation component.

The jail is ready to implement a new Southern Tutchone language program. They will follow the same curriculum that is currently being taught in Yukon elementary schools.

“We’ve taken that curriculum, and now we’re going to teach it here, so at least the children and their parents or relatives are learning at the same speed,” said Mosser.

And if all that weren’t enough to keep the inmates busy, many of them also have jobs.

Those with a minimum security rating can leave the building under supervision for work programming. Others work in the kitchen or clean inside the jail.

Inmates recently painted 5,325 stakes destined to mark the route for the Yukon Quest.

Seventy-five of the jail’s 95 inmates currently have jobs, compared with only 40 jobs at the old jail.

Positions are paid, and inmates are eligible for a raise every 30 days if they do a good job.

The ultimate goal of all this programming is not only to keep inmates busy, but also to teach them the life skills they need so they won’t get back into trouble once they have been released.

“It’s not just about sitting here, doing time, or looking at it as punishment here. We’re not here to punish people, we’re here to assist them.”

And it was hard to do that given the space limitations at the old jail.

“They spent their whole days sitting in their unit, watching one TV,” said Mosser. “There wasn’t much at all over there.”

Boredom combined with having nowhere to go often led to confrontations between inmates, she said.

“You’re in front of 26 individuals. And if someone has called you out, you have nowhere to go. You have to stand up for yourself. Here, at least you have the opportunity to walk away.”

At the new jail, there are cells for one or two inmates, each with a TV. During the daytime, cells are unlocked and inmates can hang out in common areas, including a kitchen, a gym and a small open-air courtyard with a basketball hoop.

The inmates are in a good place to learn and make positive changes in their lives while they are in jail, said Tuton.

But continuing that learning after release can be difficult.

“They’re heading right back into the high-risk situations that led them into here. It’s pretty tough to leave here and go find a completely new set of friends and a completely different lifestyle.”

There are currently about 95 inmates in the prison, compared with 113 a year ago.

It’s too early to say if that drop was caused by the new space and programming, but the numbers have been heading in the right direction.

Tuton has seen some people coming back to jail less frequently, or spending more time away before they get into trouble again, he said.

“You see some guys really putting effort into the programs, and that’s progress.”

Contact Jacqueline Ronson at