Prisoners at Nunavut’s biggest jail say they’re being unfairly punished for breaking jail rules by an internal court that doesn’t allow them to defend themselves.
The court, officially called the disciplinary board, is referred to by both guards and prisoners as “kangaroo court” — a term used to describe a court where those accused are assumed guilty from the onset.
Gary Arnaquq, 37, said he faced “kangaroo court” dozens of times at the Baffin Correctional Centre in Iqaluit. He has been found guilty every time, including without appearing before the court, he said.
“I think it’s crazy … It’s like they’re doing a court hearing and finding me guilty without a hearing,” said Arnaquq, who’s originally from Qikiqtarjuaq, Nunavut.
“It’s not fair, not at all.”
Josephee Ipeelie, 25, said he too has been found guilty by “kangaroo court,” which happened three times without his knowledge. The times he was present, Ipeelie said it was not a fair hearing.
“There’s no lawyer on the site. It’s just you all by yourself,” Ipeelie said.
“They kinda set me up to bring me to the hole,” he said, referring to disciplinary segregation. Time spent in disciplinary segregation could prolong a prisoner’s time behind bars.
Currently, jail staff preside over the internal court. Prisoners can appeal decisions to the Nunavut Justice Department’s director of corrections. There is no independent chair or oversight, as in the federal system.
Under Nunavut’s new Corrections Act, prisoners found guilty by the internal court face consequences that include 15 days in segregation, the loss of early release and loss of programming.
“We take a lot of pride in the fact that we don’t run a kangaroo court, and we really respect their rights as inmates and as people,” the jail’s new warden Mickey McLeod said.
He said prisoners are always informed of their right to a lawyer and to appeal decisions.
“A lot of times [prisoners] plead guilty even when they’re not guilty — they just want the process to be over with,” he said.
“Legal aid [lawyers], I’m sure, would be available to them if that’s what they chose.”None of the jail’s prisoners — who were interviewed on this topic over the past few years — said they had a lawyer present at the hearing, nor appealed any decision.
Nunavut’s Legal Services Board, or legal aid, told CBC News that prisoners are eligible for legal representation at the internal jail court, and are in the process of hiring more lawyers that could specialize in this area.
Provinces, territories lack safeguards: lawyer
In an 18-month period ending in June 2018, staff at the Baffin Correctional Centre alleged 319 infractions by prisoners, according to documents obtained through Nunavut’s Access to Information Act.
Over 85 per cent of those allegations resulted in guilty findings; none of those findings were appealed.
One prison law expert said it’s hard to believe none of those convictions warranted an appeal.
It’s likely prisoners “are just not being told what a fair process looks like, what an error in law is, [and] what findings of fact are supposed to look like,” said Lisa Kerr, an associate law professor at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont.
Kerr has represented prisoners in internal courts on both the provincial and federal level. In federal prisons, an independent chair presides over internal court and appeals are made to federal courts, Kerr said. But provincial and territorial prisoners don’t have the same safeguards.
“The Charter of Rights and Freedoms applies in any custodial settings,” Kerr explained. “So we really need to bring … this sort of basic procedural fairness to the provinces and territories as well.
“The need for a lawyer is going to be strong in all cases, except those where the inmate is willing to plead guilty.”
If a prisoner has low literacy or a cognitive impairment, that need is still stronger, she added.
And prisoners subjected to unfair treatment are likely less prone to rehabilitate, Kerr said.
‘A real and pronounced bias’
In Nunavut’s new Corrections Act, expected to come into force over the next year, one new element of the internal discipline process is the creation of a jail investigator position. Decisions made by the internal court can be appealed to the investigator, who then makes recommendations to the director of corrections, who can accept or reject them.
But the disciplinary board and appeals process under the new act is still presided by jail staff.
This creates “a real and pronounced bias” because there is nobody “truly independent” at the internal court, the territory’s Legal Services Board told legislators in April, when the new act was being drafted.
It is “extremely unlikely” that the disciplinary board will be unbiased in its decision-making, legal services said.
The government of Nunavut said it is in the process of hiring a jail investigator.
Related stories from around the North:
Canada: Inmates in Iqaluit jail say conditions deteriorating since June riot, CBC News
Finland: Police in Arctic Finland overstretched, says retiring officer, Yle News
United States: U.S. Justice Department to send millions to rural Alaska law enforcement, Alaska Public Media