The territory’s justice minister says work is being done to ensure a “disturbing” period of incarceration doesn’t happen again.
Addressing the Legislative Assembly Wednesday, Minister of Justice Caroline Wawzonek confirmed a CKLB media report that a woman in remand custody was held in RCMP cells for 11 days and 10 nights late last year.
Remanded inmates are temporarily placed in custody pending a trial or sentencing. They make up the majority of all inmates in custody in NWT jails.
Remanded inmates are usually housed in one of the territory’s three jails, not RCMP cells. At Yellowknife’s North Slave Correctional Complex (NSCC), NWT’s largest jail, there are four spots reserved for female inmates. Those four spots, said Wawzonek, were full in late December of last year.
“Usually (the woman) would then be transported to Fort Smith (Correctional Complex) during remand,” said Wawzonek. “Unfortunately, on this occasion, despite the efforts of the RCMP and Corrections Service, that wasn’t possible.”
It wasn’t possible, the minister said, because the woman had four scheduled court appearances in Yellowknife. RCMP and the Corrections Service were unable to coordinate flights to Fort Smith.
Long stay in cells ‘disturbing’ says MLA
Describing the prolonged stay in RCMP cells as “disturbing,” Julie Green, MLA for Yellowknife Centre, questioned Wawzonek about the conditions of cells, and what amenities the woman was provided during her 11-day stay at the detachment.
“RCMP detachment cells are simply not designed for a stay past a very short (time). A day, two days at the most,” the minister replied.
Wawzonek, who stressed Mounties are “not corrections officers,” said the amenities offered at cells are limited compared to those offered at correctional facilities in the territory, despite the best efforts from RCMP to accommodate the needs of those in custody.
“There won’t be mattresses. There won’t be blankets. There would not be any kind of entertainment,” said Wawzonek.
“At the end of the day, (RCMP cells) are not suitable for an extended period of time.”
In an email to NNSL Media, Yellowknife RCMP spokesperson Julie Plourde said the woman in question was provided with “out-of-cell time, blankets, a mattress, customized meals, and reading material.”
For safety reasons, the lights in RCMP cells are always kept on.
Addressing the conditions of cells Wednesday, Wawzonek said lights could be “turned down,” but added there are no windows in the cells.
Yellowknife RCMP say the woman’s long stay in cells wasn’t “ideal,” and not “something the RCMP wished for,” but that it arose from a lack of availability for flights to Fort Smith, the woman’s multiple court appearances in Yellowknife and the fact NSCC had reached its capacity for female inmates at the jail.
According to Plourde, the woman’s first court appearance was on Dec. 28. Three more appearances followed, and she was released following a show cause hearing on Jan. 6, stated Plourde.
“RCMP tried to find flights to send her to Fort Smith Correctional facility, but could not find suitable flights to ensure her presence in court, such as flights that would allow proper space for proper police escort, as well as flights that would allow the prisoner to respect her court appearances’ schedule,” stated Plourde.
She added RCMP worked with partners to “minimize the woman’s length of stay,” but that statutory holidays for GNWT employees presented additional challenges.
Yellowknife RCMP stressed that its cells are used to supplement the needs of existing facilities.
“The court decides who will be remanded, not the RCMP,” states Plourde.
“The RCMP is only one partner in this judicial process.”
Under the territory’s Corrections Act, RCMP cells are designated as a “place of detention.”
While Yellowknife RCMP acknowledges cells do not provide the same level of services found in correctional facilities, they say officers “cared for (the woman’s) well-being and safety,” during her 11-day stay.
Minister to encourage, improve access to video court appearances
To ensure an inmate “doesn’t have to spend that kind of extended time in the facilities of the RCMP,” Wawzonek said recurrences can be avoided by encouraging and improving access to video appearances.
Wawzonek said there’s no evidence to suggest the woman’s experience is a “consistent problem” within the territory’s justice system.
In 2016, Judge Robert Gorin ruled a woman’s Charter rights had been violated after she was housed in RCMP cells for 12 days. Gorin ruled the woman faced discrimination on the basis of her gender. She was under constant video surveillance, even when using the toilet in her cell — harsh conditions similar to those experiences by inmates solitary confinement, said Gorin.
“I point out that the problem with women being held in police cells in Yellowknife for unacceptably long periods of time is not a new one. It existed prior to my appointment as a judge over 11 years ago and has recurred on a regular and sometimes frequent basis since that time,” said Gorin in 2016.