Videoconferencing lifeline to the Far North

Helping offenders and their families to heal

In Nunavut, a territory of more than 2 million square kilometers in Canada’s Far North, there are roughly 37,000 people living in 25 small, remote communities accessible only by air. Family and friends are everything in the North: they are your survival, your sustenance and your support in good times and in bad.

For many Inuit offenders serving time in institutions in the South due to the lack of federal facilities in Nunavut, maintaining this lifeline is a challenge. Time and again, research shows that family and community support is one of the most important factors in lowering recidivism (the tendency to reoffend) rates. But visits from family and friends are rare due to the cost and the distance. As well, digital connectivity in Canada’s North is in its infancy: bandwidth is narrow, Internet service is often spotty and few families have cell phones. People can still communicate by letter or landline, but the irreplaceable face-to-face link is lost.

The Nunavut territory is highlighted on a map of Canada.

The territory of Nunavut is highlighted in blue on a map of Canada.

Bridging the communications gap 

“As the only parole officer in Nunavut, I had to get creative about finding solutions to support offenders,” says Hamza Al-Baghdadi, Parole Officer Supervisor at Correctional Service Canada, Nunavut Area Parole Office (NAPO), in Iqaluit. Hamza’s proposal was to connect offenders incarcerated in southern penitentiaries or halfway houses with their families and community supports throughout the territory via videoconference.

Shared Services Canada (SSC), which supports the IT needs of federal departments, supplied the videoconference equipment and network link for the NAPO office. Families were then able to use the equipment at health centres and social services centres closer to their homes to connect with southern institutions or the Iqaluit office.

Raj Thuppal, Assistant Deputy Minister of SSC’s Network and End Users Branch, echoes Hamza’s take on the special requirements for northern offices.

“We need to think differently when providing services there,” he observes. “There is no cable going into Nunavut, so we rely on satellite communications, which have a much lower bandwidth. But we have the expertise to configure the services so that they meet the requirements for teleconferencing. It’s working very well for them.” 

“What’s really important in making this program work,” says Hamza, “is the partnerships.” NAPO acts as a bridge between Correctional Service Canada and the federal and territorial authorities, arranging all the videoconference appointments and contacting the families with locations, dates and times.

A path to healing and reintegration

The videoconference facility in Iqaluit has also opened the door to restorative justice opportunities. Offenders are frequently released on parole in Iqaluit before they return to their own communities. Teleconferencing, with the support of mental health specialists, can ease the way back home.

“The successful reintegration of offenders back into their home communities is key to public safety,” explains Hamza. “The videoconference program can provide the means for the offender to make amends with the victim in a safe and controlled manner. It also provides both offender and victim the opportunity to break the ice and begin a dialogue prior to their eventual reintegration. It’s a proactive approach.”

Today, the Offender/Family Video Conference Program holds anywhere between 40 and 50 sessions every fiscal year. While it is too soon to produce recidivism statistics and their possible relationship to the program, the anecdotal evidence is promising. Perhaps the most important evidence of the program’s success is the impact on the families.

“It’s common to see tears of joy in the conference room,” says Hamza. “Last year, we had a lifer who hadn’t seen his family in over 10 years, and we were able to connect them through this program with SSC’s help.”

An inmate and his family participate in a video conference.

An inmate and his family participate in a video conference.

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