Inmates went without running water, electricity at Yellowknife jail

Last modified: October 17, 2021 at 7:09am

A woman whose brother is incarcerated at Yellowknife’s North Slave Correctional Complex says he was kept in a cell without running water.

Chelsea Thomas said the problems experienced by her brother, James, who has been at the jail on remand for more than three and a half years, are getting worse.

“My brother strongly feels he is being discriminated against because of his culture and the other inmates who he associates with,” Thomas said. Her brother is Dene and a member of the West Point First Nation. 


James Thomas has been charged with first-degree murder and robbery in the 2017 death of Alexander Norwegian near Hay River.

In September, Thomas said, her brother was kept in a cell without running water for several days and his request to move to another cell was denied.

Thomas sent an email to NWT justice minister RJ Simpson on September 10 about the issue, which she shared with Cabin Radio. Two days later, she said, her brother was moved to a new cell. However, issues with water persisted and problems with electricity began on the unit, where more than 30 men are housed. 

As a result, Thomas said, many inmates had no running water and were denied access to showers for at least two days. 

Thomas said all of the inmates on the unit held a non-violent protest over the conditions. A small group were then “singled out,” she said, and taken to “the hole” – or put in segregation – where they were said to have been denied access to showers, phone calls, and the minimum amount of time required outside segregation. 


“When he’s out in the general population, my brother calls me just-about daily, so it’s odd that he didn’t call,” Thomas said, noting she received no phone call from him for three to five days. 

Minister Simpson declined Cabin Radio’s request for an interview. 

Ngan Trinh, a spokesperson for the department, confirmed in an email there were issues with water pressure and lighting in “certain areas” of the North Slave Correctional Complex that affected individual cells. Trinh said inmates were moved to other cells and the issues have since been fixed. Further maintenance has been scheduled to stop the problems returning, she added. 

Trinh said she could not comment on specific complaints made by inmates but, under territorial policy, inmates cannot be confined for more than 20 hours in a 24-hour period unless “required for the protection of safety and security of personnel at the correctional facility.” That requirement covers medical reasons, the potential for an inmate to be a danger to themselves or others, or if management, operation, and security of the jail is jeopardized.


Trinh said inmates have access to showers and phone calls while confined away from others, but their movement may be restricted to the unit where they are housed. 

Thomas feels her brother’s mistreatment is part of a pattern. She believes her brother and the people he associates with are being targeted by some guards because he is Indigenous and they are Black, saying they are being treated “poorly and inhumanely.”

“They’re being picked on,” she said. “There’s one guy in particular who gets provoked purposely … and when the inmates finally react, they get thrown in the hole.” 

Cabin Radio was unable to independently verify claims that some inmates are mistreated in a targeted fashion.

Thomas said she raised her brother’s treatment with the jail supervisor but nothing was done.

“They might be inmates but they are still people and they deserve to have proper running water,” she said. “They deserve to have their phone calls and they definitely deserve to have showers.”

Trinh said the Department of Justice “takes all allegations of mistreatment seriously and investigates all inmate complaints.”

Late last year, a leaked workplace assessment highlighted complaints from corrections staff about security issues, understaffing, inadequate training, a lack of support from management, and cuts to programming for inmates.

Trinh said the department had since held regular meetings between management and staff to address those concerns, adjusted staffing levels, provided more training, and reviewed security equipment.