A backside view of the Whitehorse Correctional Centre (WCC) in Whitehorse on May 12. The government announced in April that it would be replacing the territory’s only halfway house, the Salvation Army-run Yukon Adult Resource Centre, with a program run by the John Howard Society and housed in Unit E of the WCC. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News)

Concerns about transitional facility at WCC misplaced, former correctional investigator says

The former correctional investigator of Canada says he thinks that some of the criticism directed at the relocation of the Yukon’s only halfway house to an unused unit at the Whitehorse jail is misplaced.

Instead of a traditional halfway house, the program being run of out what was formerly Unit E of the Whitehorse Correctional Centre (WCC) should be seen as a reintegration preparation project — and a worthy one at that, according to Howard Sapers.

“I think, in part, some of the negative attention that decision has attracted is because of the use of the word ‘halfway house,’” Sapers said in an interview May 8.

“A halfway house would normally be operating outside of the security perimeter of an institution, but reintegration programs don’t necessarily (need to).

“… Having a relatively open custody component of WCC, to help prepare people in a more normalized setting for their release and re-entry (into society) makes a lot of sense and is quite consistent with good evidence based correctional practice.”

The government announced in April that it would be replacing the territory’s only supervised residential facility, the Salvation Army-run Yukon Adult Resource Centre (ARC), with a program run by justice-focused NGO the John Howard Society and housed in Unit E of the WCC.

The ARC was the only supervised, non-custodial residential facility in the Yukon. It closed on April 30 after close to 20 years, with the Salvation Army citing unsustainable and increasing costs as the primary reason for bowing out of offering the service.

The Yukon government refurbished Unit E and partnered with the John Howard Society to create a replacement for the ARC. It opened May 1 and can house up to 40 people; like the ARC, the facility only serves men.

While government officials have described the arrangement as “innovative,” the plan has come under fire from members of the Yukon legal community as well as a Vancouver-based legal advocacy organization, who say having a halfway house in the same complex as the jail defeats to point of rehabilitation.

Sapers, who has also previously served as Ontario’s independent advisor on corrections reform and is now an independent consultant, was not involved in the Yukon government’s repurposing of Unit E.

He said, however, that he thought the lawyers’ assertions on rehabilitation, reintegration and the purpose of halfway houses in regards to Unit E weren’t valid concerns.

“Release-planning for anybody serving a custodial sentence has to start on day one of the sentence and, and the best practices in corrections today are to normalize the carceral environment as much as possible so that the transition back to community is less stark,” he explained.

“… (The Unit E program) is one component of the transition that’s going on in Yukon corrections that I’ve seen where there is more of a focus on intervention and less of a focus on just custody and that’s a good thing. And I see this as a component of that transition.”

Having different levels of housing as well as various levels of rehabilitative programming on-site at a correctional facility isn’t unusual, Sapers said, and there’s more to a program than its location.

“What happens behind the walls is very important,” he said.

“… The fact that (the unit) has been renovated, it’s been retrofitted, the fact that it has a separate entrance and the fact that it’s being operated by a community group whose focus is on release and reintegration, not on security and custody, to me says that it’s going to be a very different experience.”

Sapers said he thought some of the criticisms are valid — he agreed, for example, that the Yukon needs options for women being released from custody, and that there should be “a range of alternative housing and alternative custody strategies put into place.”

However, he said housing the program at Unit E is not something that “raises any red flags for me.”

“For me, I could quickly move from … that initial question of how this makes sense and when you understand the program model, it answers that question,” he said.

“…Certainly, you know, this is not a traditional halfway house, and so you have to accept it for what it is — and what it is, is an innovation.”

Contact Jackie Hong at jackie.hong@yukon-news.com

Whitehorse Correctional CentreYukon justice department