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Corrections staff help inmates stay connected during emotional holiday season

Family, sharing country food, Christmas games, giving back to the community – these are the thoughts about Christmas that the men at Nunavut's correctional facilities have in common with fellow Nunavummiut.

Michele LeTourneau/NNSL photo
Warden Scott Blank, who oversees the men at Uttaqivik Community Residential Centre in Iqaluit, with deputy director corrections Henry Coman, talks about what they do in the facility to help residents through the emotional time of year that is Christmas.

"We've got it decorated for the guys. It's a family-oriented place over the holidays because it's a tough time for the guys," said warden Scott Blank, who oversees men at Uttaqivik in Iqaluit, one of three community residential centres in the territory.

Here the men work during the day and observe an evening curfew – it's a work-release program, also known as a halfway house. The end is in sight, unlike for most men at the Makigiarvik Correctional Centre, the minimum-security brother to the medium- and maximum-security Baffin Correctional Centre (BCC). At Makigiarvik most of the men are in remand, with their fates waiting on the long court process.

"There's a lot of unknowns for them. They don't know when they're going home. They can't begin to plan for it," said BCC/Makigiarvik warden Michael Warren.

The facility holds an Elders' appreciation feast, where staff and inmates prepare country food and other treats, and serve the Elders. During the holiday season, inmates can participate in tournaments and play traditional Inuit games and other recreational games, receive additional phone time to talk with friends and family, and choose to attend a Christmas Eve church service on-site.

As a group, the incarcerated men at Iqaluit's facilities have taken an unprecedented step – a large donation to the men's shelter in the capital.

The facilities share a welfare account, made up of profits from the canteen, a percentage of monies earned by inmate carvers, and all monies earned by the town crew contract with the City of Iqaluit, and soon a contract with Community and Government Services. Inmates and residents make up two committees which decide how the funds in the welfare account will be used.

"They're giving a $10,000 donation to the Iqaluit men's shelter this year. They just voted on that that. That's the first time we've done that here," said Warren.

"It's nice to see these guys thinking about the community. It's them giving back during Christmas-time. People in need, they want to give back. Also, being realistic, a lot of our guys depend on that shelter."

Jordan Levi, who is in remand at Makigiarvik and is from Arctic Bay, says Christmas means family.

"We go to one house, to eat, gathering family," said Levi, adding he doesn't feel much connected to his family right now and being from another community makes it hard.

It's even harder, because contact with his mother, who is away on medical travel, isn't regular – though he says he calls his cousins.

"I'm just waiting for my mother to get back to Arctic Bay," Levi said.

This is not Levi's first Christmas in custody, and in the past he's taken part in Christmas games organized by the facility. He says that helps a bit to get through Christmas.


More Elder involvement would mean more connection to tradition and culture, says Uttaqivik resident

Blank says residents come to Uttaqivik from both territorial and federal facilities to complete their sentences. The men pay for their room and board from their earnings, which goes into the welfare account.

Joe (not his real name), who is from another community, is now a resident at Uttaqivik.

He's served federal time in the south for a serious crime, and can now see the end of his sentence. He maintains contact with family by phone. This will be his fourth and final Christmas in the system. The first two were in the south at a federal penitentiary, and the third was at BCC/Makigiarvik.

Being far away from home, in the south, was hard emotionally.

"There was no access to traditional Christmas I know from before – church, Christmas dinner with friends and family, games and events. And the sound of the accordion is always Christmas-y for me. It was very emotional, thinking of friends and family, thinking about what they were doing."

These days, he's busy with work. He gets emotional looking at the decorations and Christmas tree his fellow Uttaqivik residents have put up. He wishes he could be with family.

He takes one day at a time and says it's better than at the other institutions. He speaks on the phone with a brother, an aunt and a friend, and he says that helps. While there are normally Christmas games in Iqaluit during the holidays, Joe says he'd only go if someone accompanied him for support.

Joe is still considering whether he will return home or stay in Iqaluit when freed but, whatever he decides, if he stays on track, this will be his final Christmas in custody.

Joe says being close to his culture makes a difference, and he wishes more Elders were involved with correctional facilities generally.

"That would make it easier. And Elders that share the purpose of Christmas. There might be more connection to tradition and culture," said Joe.


Christmas is about love

Matthew Allurut, also a resident at Uttaqivik, says this is his first Christmas away from family.

"The life I've lived wasn't as I thought it would be growing up. I've just learned to accept my life as it is. In order for you to get through it, you have to accept it. A lot of people can't accept the way things work, they want things in their idea. But it's not how it works," he said.

For him, Christmas is about "giving love to each other, getting together and showing love to one another, gifts to show they care. Everybody's just happy – it makes me happy, it makes everybody happy. Even just feeling it, you feel inspired to love again. Being with family is important."

Allurut says inmates who work to understand themselves and why they are in jail are more able to get through and try to stay positive. And that's what he's doing.

"At the same time, it is depressing."

But he's staying focused. He stays in contact with family by phone, though sometimes there isn't much to say. When he does call, he feels happy. Recently he had family visit from his community. That also made him happy.

"But I know I have to do this – working on myself is more important right now, before I go. My family will still be my family no matter what. Nothing will change that. If I change myself for the better … At some point in life you have to decide whether to take control of it.

"It's about getting to know yourself and how you feel, what made you feel like that. Being in jail helped me see that people just react instead of trying to understand why. Just reacting is not at all a good thing."

If Allurut stays on track, he will be with family next Christmas.

Blank, recognizing how difficult the season is, does what he can at Uttaqivik during Christmas.

"From the welfare account, what we've got here are (gift) bags, all ready for our guys. There's a Christmas card that we give, we bought them each a little present. My first Christmas here, some of these guys didn't have a gift. I got them, also, a $200 gift certificate at Ventures, so they can use it upstairs at The Source, or downstairs," said Blank, adding that can help a resident give a gift to their child or loved one.

Staff at Uttaqivik also take a 12 days of Christmas approach, with daily gifts of pop, chips and chocolate.

"Then we have a huge turkey dinner with the guys. We eat as one big family. And if their family is actually in town, like at the boarding home, we don't shy away. We ensure that they bring them," though staff also ensure there aren't any no-contact orders.