Health Department changes tune about inmates in hospital’s special unit

Six years ago, Yukon's Department of Health and Social Services promised the courts that a special room being built at the hospital would be used to house mentally-ill jail inmates for short to intermediate stays.

Six years ago, Yukon’s Department of Health and Social Services promised the courts that a special room being built at the hospital would be used to house mentally-ill jail inmates for short to intermediate stays.

Today, health officials maintain that the special room at Whitehorse General Hospital is not for people involved in the justice system. If an inmate breaks his arm, come on by, but you don’t get to stay.

The government’s explanation? The purpose of the special unit has since “evolved.”

As a result, inmates deemed not criminally responsible or unfit to stand trial remain locked up in Whitehorse Correctional Centre, which the territory has designated as a psychiatric hospital.

That leaves you with inmates like the 74-year-old man charged with mischief who has been at the jail for months and could be waiting another 45 days to see the review board.

Or, in another recent case, a 19-year-old who faced his first criminal offence was found not criminally responsible within days of being picked up by police, but still had to sit in jail, in the general population, for a month while he waited for a review board hearing.

It also leaves you with the Yukon Human Rights Commission seeking to investigate multiple human rights complaints within the jail, only to have the Yukon government stonewall the commission.

Such concerns are not new. In 2008, the case of Veronica Germaine drew national eyes.

When she was found not criminally responsible, there was talk of sending the Northern Tutchone woman to Ontario for treatment.

She didn’t want to go. She would stay in the old Whitehorse Correctional Centre for three years.

The case would eventually end up in front of the Yukon Court of Appeal to determine if it was constitutionally allowed to house a person found not criminally responsible in a jail.

In the end Germaine lost her appeal. But the panel of judges noted: “this conclusion should not be taken to justify the continued use of WCC, or any prison, as a hospital for (not criminally responsible) accused generally.”

As part of the appeal, the Yukon government filed an affidavit by Joanne Fairlie, the assistant deputy minister of health. It says the government was providing funding to the hospital corporation “to establish a special unit at Whitehorse General Hospital for patients with psychiatric problems requiring short term or intermediate care.”

It’s now called the secure medical unit, and it’s part of Whitehorse General Hospital. While Health officials now assert the unit is not for inmates, it sounds like that’s what the appeal judges thought was going to happen. In their decision, they wrote:

“While this evidence is not relevant or necessary to the conclusions reached on this appeal, I would simply note that these developments may remove the serious concerns raised about the use of WCC as a ‘hospital.’”

Health spokesperson Pat Living maintains the special unit is not for inmates with serious mental disorders. But she was less than clear about why it couldn’t be used for non-violent people who have been found not criminally responsible. Security would have to be increased, she said.

Why, then, did the government file the affidavit in the Germaine case, which specifically dealt with using the jail as a hospital?

“The purpose was to demonstrate that we were actually taking some actions around psychiatric care facilities within the Yukon,” said Living.

She said the hospital has been used in the past by inmates. But she said she couldn’t give specifics because of privacy concerns.

The unit “was not intended specifically for individuals at the WCC. It was intended for the general Yukon population, which could include WCC inmates.”

Then she suggested that maybe the intent of the unit had “evolved.”

Living said people who were around when the affidavit was signed have changed.

“If we go back to 2009, the deputy was different, the minister was different, the ADM of health was different, the director of mental health services was different. I think the only person who’s still around is me, and I can’t speak to why somebody filed an affidavit.”

From cabinet, meanwhile, there’s silence.

Justice Minister Mike Nixon, Health and Social Services Minister Doug Graham and Premier Darrell Pasloski have all refused to comment on mental health and human rights concerns at the jail.

Contact Ashley Joannou at

ashleyj@yukon-news.com

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