A spiritual room in the Fort Smith's women’s correctional unit in Fort Smith. Photo: GNWT
Yellowknife’s young offender unit has space for 25 people. According to the territory’s justice minister, one person is currently being held there.
The same pattern applies across the Northwest Territories’ jails: none of the five facilities are operating anywhere near their capacity, an extraordinary situation attributed primarily to Covid-19 countermeasures and consequences.
At Yellowknife’s main jail, the North Slave Correctional Complex, justice minister RJ Simpson said there are 55 inmates in a building capable of housing 148.
At Hay River’s jail, there are six inmates in a facility that can hold 36. Fort Smith’s men’s jail has eight people in a building designed for 21, and the town’s women’s facility has four people in a building that can hold 23.
Overall, said Simpson, the territory is currently holding 74 inmates in a system that can safely house 253.
By comparison, when Canada’s Auditor General inspected NWT corrections just under a decade ago, the territory’s jails had average occupancy of 203 inmates in buildings that could hold 270.
Charlene Doolittle, deputy minister of justice, on Monday said the current numbers are “historically low.” Doolittle told MLAs: “Certainly, since Covid started in early 2020, our numbers began to decrease and … have stayed quite low.”
As the territory examines its spending on jails, the question now is whether the new, lower number can be sustained, or if jail populations will soon return to pre-pandemic levels.
The decrease in occupancy is attributed to policy changes brought on by Covid-19.
“Corrections, and the courts especially, made a conscious effort to try to reduce the number of inmates” as the pandemic set in, Simpson told MLAs on Monday. That effort was aimed at reducing the ability of Covid-19 to spread among inmates.
A backlog in court cases has been a more recent contributor to low occupancy, with many cases suspended for months and yet to reach a conclusion. Similar drops in occupancy have been noted in other parts of Canada.
“Whether or not those numbers go back up is yet to be seen, but I think that we have seen the numbers stay low and we haven’t seen any sort of repercussions in the communities,” the minister continued.
“I think it’s promising and, hopefully, we can keep these numbers down and don’t see a need to have people incarcerated if it’s not necessarily required.”
Doolittle added: “All the social supports, certainly in the city of Yellowknife, have also added to this. We haven’t had deep analysis into this, but it is something that seems to be suggested from those on the front lines and doing the work – this is something that is helping keep our numbers down low within the correctional facilities.”
Predicting what happens next is important because the territory spends significant sums of money maintaining five jails that are now more than half-empty, including a young offenders’ unit with a sole occupant.
On Monday, inspecting the Department of Justice’s capital budget for the year ahead, regular MLAs enquired about the impact of low occupancy on the department’s spending plans.
Yellowknife North MLA Rylund Johnson, for example – referring to being the lone person in a jail as “a backwards way of being in solitary confinement” (a characterization the minister disputed) – asked if the young offenders’ facility could be repurposed.
But the minister and department officials say there are no simple downsizing options. The territory is obliged to offer a safe youth facility away from adults, they say, and is similarly mandated to provide separate men’s and women’s facilities.
“I wish there was an easy solution where we could say, yes, we have zero to two offenders in that unit at any given time, and we don’t need that much space and we can do something else,” said Simpson. “But it’s not an easy solution.”
Doolittle said her department is “watching” the numbers but not enough time has yet passed to have any certainty that they will remain low enough to begin cutting back on facilities.
“It would be unfortunate to close something and then find out in the near future that we do need these facilities,” she said. “But it is something on the department’s radar.”
MLAs and officials stressed they were pleased to see low occupancy rates.
Simpson added: “This is a relatively new phenomenon, these low numbers. When I took over the portfolio, they weren’t this low.
“This huge decline is very, very recent, and it’s a little early to start making those decisions.”