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Let sunlight into the jail

Human rights apparently don't count inside Whitehorse Correctional Centre. That, anyhow, is an easy-to-draw conclusion, based on the Yukon government’s absurd decision.

Human rights apparently don’t count inside Whitehorse Correctional Centre. That, anyhow, is an easy-to-draw conclusion, based on the Yukon government’s absurd decision to bar the Yukon Human Rights Commission from investigating inmate complaints at the jail.

The Justice Department’s stated rationale for this decision is, quite simply, preposterous. It points to part of the Yukon Human Rights Act that exempts the commission from investigating complaints already handled by other review processes.

When this bit of law was proposed and debated back in 2008, it was envisioned as one of several quick fixes to procedural log-jams that the commission faced. The purpose was never to tie the hands of investigators; it was to allow them to dismiss cases best handled, in their judgement, elsewhere. That much is clear from the legislative report that proposed the change, and the ensuing legislative debates.

You don’t have to be a genius to see why justice officials would want to block human rights officials from the prison. The subsequent report is almost sure to make them look bad. And, if there’s a standard operating procedure up at the jail, it’s to keep such business locked away in the dark.

The human rights commission has warned that it considers the treatment of mentally ill inmates within the prison one of its most pressing concerns. The public complaints of several inmates over the past few months give a good idea why. All suffer from mental illness, and all say the “treatment” they have received is long spells in solitary confinement with little medical supervision.

This is, of course, only a recipe for making such inmates even more mentally unstable.

What’s more, leaving mentally unstable inmates in the hole for prolonged periods increases the likelihood of harm not only to themselves, but to the public, as nearly all inmates will at some point once again walk the streets.

(Justice officials refuse to say much of anything about the complaints of inmates, under the trumped-up pretense of respecting privacy rights. But government reports indicate that inmates in solitary receive little psychiatric care.)

The government points to the Investigations Standards Office, or ISO, which reviews inmate complaints, as one reason why they see no need for human rights investigators snooping around. Yet the ISO is only able to overturn the treatment plans of individual inmates - for broader issues, it can only issue recommendations.

That helps explain why the ISO is in the midst of its third review of the jail’s segregation policies. It obviously doesn’t have the tools to get the job done.

Similarly, the ombudsman - another avenue the government points to - also lacks the power to compel the government to change its practices.

The human rights commission, meanwhile, does have the ability to order jail-wide policy changes. What’s more, the findings of the commission are public, whereas the ISO’s reports are kept secret - the way that justice officials like things kept.

At the heart of the jail’s dysfunction is the delusional notion clung to by officials that the facility is equipped to operate as a psychiatric hospital. Clearly, it’s not.

To allay concerns about this, the Yukon government promised the courts several years ago that it would build secure facilities at Whitehorse General Hospital suitable for mentally ill inmates for short to intermediate stays. But that didn’t happen. Hospital and health officials now assert that these secure facilities are only to provide pressing, short-term medical treatment to inmates, like when someone breaks an arm.

That’s why a 74-year-old man has been locked away in jail since May, after he was charged with mischief for disrupting a church service. His family pleads that he “does not have a criminal bone in his body, but he’s just gotten out of touch with reality.” Because of mental illness, he’s been deemed unfit to stand trial. So he gets a jail cell instead. It could take the review board another 45 days to decide what to do with him.

That’s also why a mentally-ill 19-year-old, facing his first offence and found not criminally responsible within days of being picked up by police, had to sit in the general population of the jail for a month while he waited for a review board hearing.

So here we have a government that is flouting human rights laws by refusing to allow independent investigators into the jail, and has broken its word to the judiciary about plans to improve the treatment of mentally ill inmates. Remind us, what country are we living in? Russia? Must Amnesty International start a letter-writing campaign or something? Or could our political leaders perhaps show a bit of decency, and end this nonsense?

The signs are not promising. To date, Justice Minister Mike Nixon appears to be too busy attending comic-book conventions and flipping hamburgers to answer queries on the matter. So, it looks like this will be another Yukon Party scandal to eventually be settled by the courts. In the meantime, nothing gets better inside the jail.