The frigid morning wind bites your skin as you trudge along the snowy city sidewalks. Any trace of moisture on your clothing quickly becomes frost on your short walk to work. It’s the depth of winter. And somewhere in this city, there are human beings in makeshift shelters sleeping rough.
Perhaps a brazen shoplifting excursion through Shoppers and its inevitable sentence would seem a logical path to escape the harsh Northern winter for a month or two? So, the thinking goes , among some Yellowknifers, folks on the streets must commit crimes purely to gain access to the indoor cot and three square meals incarceration brings with it, right?
The Origins of the Myth
The idea of intentional imprisonment for perceived benefits is one that spreads far beyond the North.
Perhaps the perception in Yellowknife comes from the disconnect between our own experiences and limitations with the reality of people sleeping on the streets in subarctic temperatures — “I’d steal to avoid that, why wouldn’t someone else?”
Whatever the origins, evidence suggests this oft-repeated assumption is 100 percent false.
A former full-time corrections employee, speaking under condition of anonymity, tells EDGE, quite simply: “Prison is not fun. People don’t go to jail on purpose.”
Years spent with inmates brought them to this conclusion. “I’ve talked to these guys a lot over many years; we often get to conversations about their circumstances and how they got here,” they say. “Not once have I heard anyone suggest they’d committed a crime just to get off the streets.”
Members of Yellowknife’s street community are equally unconvinced. “Does that work?” asks Julie, a member of the community, with a wry smile.
“When you do a crime, you do your time, but everyone here tries their best to stay out of trouble,” says Julie, as her two friends nod in unison, “No one I know has ever went to jail on purpose.” Besides, you can’t smoke in jail, she adds with a chuckle.
But the myth’s real downfall comes in the stats. The Department of Justice dug up numbers for monthly admissions across all five institutions in the Northwest Territories from 2004-2014 and found that variations were minor and stayed steady regardless of season, with only minor variations. “There are no patterns of increased counts or intakes during the winter months,” a spokesperson said in an email.
For pretty much anything in this world there are exceptions, but based on both conversation and data, this myth doesn’t deserve its play. Looks like NWT prisons haven’t secretly become resorts after all.