The shame of segregation secrecy

Many Yukoners were shocked to learn that an inmate in Whitehorse Correctional Centre had made a video-linked court appearance earlier this year while naked and shackled within the jail.

Many Yukoners were shocked to learn that an inmate in Whitehorse Correctional Centre had made a video-linked court appearance earlier this year while naked and shackled within the jail, as we reported last week. This outrage, in turn, has caused some residents to be quick to leap to the conclusion that jail guards in riot gear forcefully stripped the inmate in question, as he indeed alleges.

We should pause, however, to remember at this point this allegation hasn’t been verified, and that the inmate in question, Michael Nehass, is a far cry from being a reliable source. He is clearly deeply troubled – lately he has rambled in court about conspiracies involving jail officials being in cahoots with Freemasons and planting nanochips inside inmates’ heads.

It’s not hard to imagine Nehass refusing to dress in an effort to avoid appearing before court, as Justice officials have lately suggested. Nor is it hard to see why guards would take precautions to protect themselves, however overkill they may appear.

Nehass has a long history of violence; at one point he punched a guard in the face so hard that bone was left sticking out of the skin. If it was your job to escort Nehass, you would probably want to wear body armour too.

But none of this gets past the basic sense that Canada’s justice system is no place to have three guards in riot gear pin a naked, shackled man against his will before a video camera. It’s hard to imagine an inmate being taken into a courtroom in such condition, and it shouldn’t be any more tolerable that it occurred by video link. It’s shocking that the judge, Leigh Gower, allowed the proceedings to continue.

Further, Nehass’s ravings suggest that his long spells in solitary confinement have caused him to lose touch with reality. It’s worth noting that the first time the News ran a story about Nehass spending long spells in solitary was seven years ago. At that time, he and others expressed concerns about the toll being taken on his already troubled mind. He has spent a long time in prison, and a long time in segregation, since then.

Just how long remains unclear, thanks to the Justice Department’s silly, self-destructive penchant for secrecy, which does no favours to itself, to its inmates or to the public.

When Nehass’s family recently aired its allegation that Nehass had been forcefully stripped, the department’s communications director, Dan Cable, replied with the usual canard, claiming that he couldn’t comment at all, out of respect for the inmate’s privacy. Flash forward a few days, and a few news reports later, and Cable had softened his stance. Now he asserts that Nehass’s claims that he was forcibly stripped, and that he has spent 28 months in solitary confinement, are both false. He has not bothered to tell the public the department’s version of what actually happened.

To get theses details, we’ll need to wait for the case to wind its way through the Yukon Human Rights Commission first, apparently – unless Justice officials decide to change the rules again, and disclose more because they feel like it.

Nothing new here. When Mark McDiarmid began to stage a hunger strike in Whitehorse Correctional Centre in the autumn, Justice officials also claimed they couldn’t verify the protest because of – you guessed it – privacy concerns. But these concerns were tossed aside when the department eventually relented and confirmed that McDiarmid had stopped eating.

So, which was it? Did the territory falsely assert that the information was protected, when it really wasn’t? (We suspect as much.) Or did the Yukon release information, despite knowing it was protected? Either way, at some point it looks like the Justice Department is breaking its own rules.

If officials were being honest, they would spell out their real policy: “We don’t comment on what’s potentially embarrassing – unless things get really embarrassing, in which case we will grudgingly change our minds.”

This does nobody any favours. The Yukon government looks worse than it needs to, as some people assume Nehass’s version of events is true, for lack of any counter-balance provided by the territory. The public are left in the dark about the workings of the justice system, and this only breeds suspicion. And it’s preposterous to pretend that the territory’s privacy legislation was designed to prevent inmates’ complaints of mistreatment from being addressed by the government.

Justice officials are supposed to enforce the rules, not make them up as it suits their fancy. It’s well within the reach of Minister Mike Nixon to end this foolishness. We hope he does so, by asking the bureaucracy to hew to clear rules that encourage disclosure to help clear the air in the case of future controversies.

There are, of course, bigger issues here. The territory needs more credible advocates for troubled inmates such as Nehass, and it’s a shame that a local chapter of the John Howard Society doesn’t currently exist.

It’s also clear that Nehass hasn’t received the help he needs at Whitehorse Correctional Centre. The psychological harm caused by prolonged spells in solitary confinement are well established, and it’s only reasonable to assume that, however long he has spent in the hole, this has only helped feed his paranoia.

Yukon’s Justice officials should acknowledge the obvious: they’re in over their heads when it comes to dealing with inmates with serious mental health issues. Keeping in mind that one of the goals of incarceration is to prepare the inmate to one day return to society, we should be doing more for inmates to avoid them becoming as far gone as Nehass now seems to be.

A few years ago, during a court challenge launched by another inmate with serious mental issues, the Justice Department offered assurances that construction of the new jail and the addition of a psychiatric unit at Whitehorse General Hospital would provide adequate resources to handle tough cases. Yet clearly disturbed inmates are still being tossed in solitary confinement, when the proper environment would seem to be some kind of dedicated mental health facility.

Whitehorse Correctional Centre isn’t a psychiatric hospital. It’s time to stop pretending it is one.

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