Alberta takes 85 prisoners from Northwest Territories as fire forces Yellowknife evacuations

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Eighty-five prisoners from jails in the Northwest Territories are being transferred to Alberta’s correctional system as wildfires bear down on Yellowknife — one of the first times in Canadian history a natural disaster has forced a large-scale movement of prisoners between jurisdictions.

Alberta Public Safety Minister Mike Ellis tweeted a photo of Alberta Sheriffs vehicles waiting on the tarmac at Edmonton International Airport Thursday, saying the province is prepared to receive inmates following a territorial evacuation order announced Wednesday evening.

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That evacuation order took effect noon Friday, with thousands of Yellowknife residents fleeing by road and air, many for evacuation centres in Alberta. The inmates, most of them men, were flown directly from Yellowknife to Edmonton, around 1,451 km south.

Ellis said the territorial inmates will be transferred to facilities in the Edmonton area “for the duration of the evacuation period.” 

“Alberta is here to help our neighbours during this difficult crisis,” Ellis said. A ministry spokesperson said “there was sufficient capacity to house” the new arrivals. 

Catherine Latimer, executive director of the John Howard Society of Canada, said she is not aware of any prior instances of Canadian inmates being evacuated due to a natural disaster.

“This is new to me,” said Latimer, a lawyer and criminologist who has been director of the national prison reform non-profit since 2011.

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The Northwest Territories operates three correctional facilities housing both remand inmates and prisoners serving sentences of two years less a day.

There are no federal prisons in the territory. Anyone sentenced to federal time serves their sentence in the south.

On Thursday, the Northwest Territories government said 90 inmates had been transferred to Yukon and Alberta due to the wildfire threat.

Edmonton remand
A 2011 file photo of the Edmonton Remand Centre, Canada’s largest correctional facility. Postmedia, file

The government said all inmates from the South Mackenzie Correctional Centre in fire-threatened Hay River, as well as Fort Smith Correctional Complex (the only institution housing both male and female prisoners) had already been transferred to Yellowknife’s North Slave Correctional Complex prior to residents in the city being told to evacuate.

Alberta’s provincial corrections system holds around 3,800 adults and 100 youth on an average day. The Edmonton Remand Centre — which mainly houses inmates who have been denied bail or other pre-trial release — is the largest correctional facility in Canada, with room for 1,952 inmates.

Chris Hay, executive director of the John Howard Society of Alberta, said he was not overly concerned about the system’s ability to absorb the Northwest Territories inmates, but said transfers over such long distances are unusual.

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“Transfers, for various reasons, happen all the time,” he said. “Maybe not natural disasters, but (Alberta Corrections) did a lot of transfers when COVID was here to try to … space people out.”

Latimer said the closest parallel she could think of was the emptying of the notorious Kingston Penitentiary after the 1971 riot when prisoners were moved en masse to the newly constructed Millhaven Institution.

She said the impact of wildfires on the territorial jails, coupled with the ongoing effects of COVID-19, should be a wake-up call to prison administrators.

“We really need to question the preparedness of correctional authorities to deal with emerging crises,” she said. “I think there’s a real issue in terms of preparing correctional authorities to deal with these sudden issues.”

In early 2022, there were just 74 adult inmates and three youth in the Northwest Territories correctional system, which can house a maximum of 253. According to a report from Cabin Radio, the drop began as a bid to prevent COVID outbreaks, leading one MLA to question whether the territory needs a correctional system.

— with files from The Canadian Press

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