More resources aimed at prisoners in solitary, but treatment is optional

The first time Michael Nehass went to court, Helen Rissanen remembers holding his hand. “He was a real lost kid,” said the 65-year-old…

The first time Michael Nehass went to court, Helen Rissanen remembers holding his hand.

“He was a real lost kid,” said the 65-year-old grandmother.

Now, 10 years later, Nehass is in solitary confinement at Whitehorse Correctional Centre.

He’s been in the windowless, five-by-eight cell for the last few months.

Rissanen first met Nehass when he was 13.

His father was friends with Rissanen’s son.

“I used to go with Michael to see his probation officers,” said Rissanen.

“Nobody knows him the way I do.”

When Nehass was really young, his father remembers him tripping and falling over people passed out in the house, she said.

“He didn’t know where to go — he was little and crying.”

Rissanen ran into Nehass in Rotary Park, when he was in his early teens.

“He was all beaten up and living on the streets,” she said.

Last week, when Rissanen learned that Nehass was in solitary confinement, she almost cried.

“I want to help him,” she said.

“I want to let him know life can be good.”

It’s easy to pass the buck, said Rissanen.

“I kept thinking they would take care of him. But nobody should go through that, not in this day and age.”

People end up in segregation for two reasons, said jail supervisor Phil Perrin, on Wednesday.

Either the prisoner poses a threat to other inmates or staff, or they pose a threat to themselves and need to be closely monitored.

On average, prisoners who end up in solitary are only there for a day and a half, he said.

“Normally, the longest stay is a month,” said Perrin.

“It’s a rarity if it’s more than that.”

Perrin would not speak to individual cases, like Nehass’.

“Segregation is definitely not the place we like to keep people, unless there are no other alternatives left,” he said.

Before coming north, Perrin worked in segregation at a federal institution.

“We had people in segregation for years at a time, because there’s just no other place to manage them,” he said.

“And often, their behaviour does get worse.”

When prisoners are stuck in solitary for long periods, “we worry about things like sensory deprivation,” said Perrin.

“So, for some, we allow them to have yard and gym time with other inmates so they have that interaction.”

Prisoners with high needs and high risks get more resources, added Perrin.

A psychiatrist visits the correctional centre weekly.

Nurses working with the inmates decide who needs to see the psychiatrist and triage the cases, he said.

“But if the psychiatrists meets with an inmate and basically says it’s just a behavioural problem and not a mental health issue then you’re rather limited on what treatment options you can consider.

“They might not have a diagnosable condition warranting treatment, and we can’t send them if they’re not prepared to go there.”

The only time a prisoner can be treated involuntarily is if they’re deemed “mentally incompetent,” said Perrin.

And this is rare at the jail, he said.

When Nehass was sentenced, the judge ruled he was a troubled young man who needed treatment.

Sitting in solitary, Nehass claims he isn’t getting much help.

“Segregation is based on security — it’s not based on treatment,” said Perrin.

“You can’t force treatment on somebody.”

However, federal law states that for prisoners who end up in solitary confinement, the jail must come up with a plan to reintegrate those inmates, “ either through some kind of negotiated return, or a transfer to another institution or transfer to a special-needs unit.”

Prisoners’ cases at the Whitehorse jail are reviewed weekly, said Perrin.

And the jail offers a number of programs for inmates, including substance-abuse and anger-management programs and courses in traditional parenting and cognitive skills.

Mental Health nurses also work with inmates, but only until the conditions set by the judge are completed, said Perrin.

“Then it no longer falls under Justice,” he said.

“We’re only resourced to deal with those cases, then we might refer them to the department of Health.”

Nehass needs help, said Rissanen.

“He’s always considered himself a bad kid,” she said.

“But when you’re young, if you’re just told you have a chance, things would have been different.”

Nehass needs someone who’ll take the time and listen to him, said Rissanen.

“He needs someone he can confide in.”