A sweat lodge program at the Whitehorse Correctional Centre (WCC) is giving inmates the opportunity to receive Yukon First Nations teachings and healing while incarcerated.
Yukon government’s director of corrections Andrea Monteiro and Council of Yukon First Nations (CYFN) executive director Shadelle Chambers announced the program at a press conference at the Kwanlin Dün Cultural Centre on Feb. 28.
The sweat lodge was constructed in September 2019 but the press conference was the first time officials have spoken about it to media.
“This program is an important step in implementing knowledge shared by Yukon First Nations about how to better incorporate Indigenous culture into the correctional centre,” Monteiro told reporters.
“…Our intention with the sweat lodge program is to provide an avenue for individuals incarcerated at the Whitehorse Correctional Centre to access spiritual renewal, healing and connection with traditional knowledge and practices. I’ve personally been proud to witness the ongoing impact of initiatives like the sweat lodge program on both incarcerated individuals and correctional staff. When justice-involved clients retain a connection to their community, culture traditional teachings, community reintegration is easier.”
The sweat lodge is located within the correctional centre’s enclosed fresh air area. Inmates can apply to participate in the program, and must first attend sessions with an elder, who talks to them about teachings, what to expect during a sweat and medicines, before taking part in a sweat ceremony. Only participating inmates and the elder leading the sweat are in the lodge during the ceremony; there are no correctional staff inside with them.
The program was created after CYFN successfully wrote a proposal to the Yukon government’s Mental Wellness Strategy fund and is the latest initiative at the jail geared towards Yukon First Nations inmates. There’s also an Indigenous healing room and outdoor healing circle.
“We are aware that there is overrepresentation of Yukon First Nations at WCC so it is extremely important that clients have access to a variety of programs to ensure that they’re connected to their community and culture,” Chambers said.
According to Chambers, almost a hundred inmates have participated in sweats since the program began, although she said it was “challenging to measure the outcomes” since “spirituality is an individual process for each person.”
However, both her and Monteiro said there appears to be a demand from inmates for the program.
“Anecdotally, we’ve been hearing a lot positive feedback from the individuals … Many of those who have participated have participated multiple times, which to me is an indication of success,” Monteiro said. “Thus far, it’s been quite favourable from my perspective.”
Non-Yukon First Nations inmates are allowed to participate as well, something Chambers described as “really great” because it allows for “an integration of cultural beliefs and cultural sharing which is really important.”
“To me, it is a success because … we have the construction of the sweat at WCC, clients are utilizing it, and we are trying to ensure it’s a sustainable program on a long-term basis,” she said.
Monteiro said there will be a sweat ceremony specifically for WCC staff in the future so that they can gain an understanding of the ceremonies and what it’s like to participate in them.
Contact Jackie Hong at firstname.lastname@example.org