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Hunger strikes at Whitehorse jail

Karen Nicloux hasn't eaten for two weeks. To avoid smelling the hot meals delivered to her dorm three times a day, the Whitehorse Correctional Centre inmate rubs Vicks VapoRub under her nose.

Karen Nicloux hasn’t eaten for two weeks.

To avoid smelling the hot meals delivered to her dorm three times a day, the Whitehorse Correctional Centre inmate rubs Vicks VapoRub under her nose.

“The smell of food is making me nauseous,” said the 43-year-old First Nation woman.

“I have started getting dizzy, and I’m losing sleep.”

But Nicloux still refuses to eat.

The hunger strike is a last resort.

Staff at the jail “won’t acknowledge or accommodate my disability,” she said.

Nicloux has been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and borderline personality disorder.

“When I get an attack, it feels like I’m having a heart attack,” she said.

“My chest gets tight and I sometimes black out from lack of oxygen.”

Nicloux blames a death threat on the job in 1999, when she was Na-cho Nyak Dun’s employment training officer, for the onset of her post-traumatic stress.

Ten years later, Nicloux has received another death threat—this time, in jail.

“It’s causing me anxiety attacks,” she said.

Nicloux was jailed on drug charges more than two months ago.

For the first five days, she was held in B dorm with the rest of the female inmates.

But before the week was up, Nicloux was moved to the medical dorm for “safety reasons,” according to her lawyer, Fia Jampolsky.

Ten days later, Nicloux was assaulted by a schizophrenic patient who was sharing the med dorm.

“She threw a cup of hot water in my face,” said Nicloux.

“She was suicidal and I was trying to calm her down.”

With nowhere else to put her, staff at the jail moved Nicloux to administrative segregation for the night.

“It’s a 10-by-eight-foot room where they check you in and out of the jail,” she said.

“There’s no bathroom—you have to wave at the camera.”

The next day Nicloux slept in the gym, then in an interview room.

Finally, she was moved to G dorm, a windowless cell in the middle of the jail across from two tiny segregation rooms known as The Hole.

But it isn’t the dorm that is troubling Nicloux—it’s lack of programming.

“I have repeatedly requested (Alcoholics Anonymous) meetings, mental-health programming, counselling from alcohol and drug services, schooling and to see a psychiatrist,” she said.

All were denied.

“I was told I couldn’t go back to B dorm, so I couldn’t have the programming,” said Nicloux.

But then another woman joined Nicloux in segregation—three days later the new inmate was offered programming.

“She was attending AA meetings, arts and crafts, healing circle, Yukon College classes, and was taken down to adult probation for drug classes,” said Nicloux.

The other inmate was also allowed to join an outside work crew, something Nicloux was denied.

Nicloux phoned adult probation requesting addictions counselling. She was sent three drug booklets.

“I completed them and sent them back a couple of weeks ago, but still haven’t heard anything,” she said on Wednesday.

In the last 70 days, Nicloux has been seen one elder, attended one arts-and-crafts class, three healing circles and four counselling sessions.

The other female inmates get this kind of programming at least once a week and school twice a week, she said.

Nicloux, who used to attend regular programming at the hospital, is “starting to forget what she learned.”

“I’m having angry outbursts and letting things build up before I vent,” she said.

“I am supposed to wait 10 seconds and think, ‘Will this make my life better or worse?’—but I am losing this now.”

On June 17, Nicloux filed a complaint with the Yukon Human Rights Board, based on discrimination due to her disabilities.

Even getting fresh air is an ordeal.

“I have been out for fresh air once this week,” she said.

Nicloux is expected to join the other women from B dorm in the yard, but it exacerbates her post-traumatic stress.

“When I go out in the yard with them they call me names and speak about me loudly so I can overhear, even with earplugs on,” she said.

“They call me ‘that thing.’”

One inmate told Nicloux she was “going to die.”

Nicloux no longer goes for fresh air with the women, opting to stay in her dorm. Although she longs for the sunlight, it is too hard on her mentally, she said.

Nicloux was told if she wants fresh air alone, she needs a note from her doctor.

“I have been trying to see a psychiatrist for months,” she said.

It wasn’t until a week into her hunger strike, that the first meeting finally happened.

The psychiatrist visits the jail weekly, said Justice spokesperson Dan Cable.

“He does his rounds on Thursdays.”

The programs available for women at the jail “are Alcoholics Anonymous, elder counselling and guidance, and standard educational programs through Yukon College,” said Cable.

There are two additional programs geared toward First Nation inmates but open to everyone, he added, referring to the White Bison and Gathering Power programs.

“In addition, female inmates have access to individual counselling to assist them with addictions, trauma, and anger management, and they have access to the new healing room.”

But all programming is dependent upon an individual inmate’s personal-risk assessment—what risk they pose to other inmates, the risk other inmates pose to them and what risk they pose to staff, he said.

Cable would not comment on individual cases, including Nicloux’s.

But the jail does have a general hunger-strike policy.

“The staff will offer the inmate meals at the regular times and it’s up to the inmate to decide if they want to eat those meals,” said Cable.

“The doctor will monitor more closely inmates who are on a hunger strike.

“Should an inmate’s health be compromised, the decision is not made by the correctional officers, it’s made by the doctor.

“And if a person’s health becomes compromised during a hunger strike, then they’re moved to the hospital.”

Nicloux’s last meal was the night of June 13.

She has lost 14 pounds.

“I am weaker,” she said.

“I used to be able to do 40 situps at a time, and now I can do 15.”

And a few days ago, Nicloux noticed a weird tingling in her arm.

She asked a nurse about it.

“All you have to do is eat, and you’d feel better,” the nurse said.

“They’re really sarcastic,” said Nicloux.

“I don’t understand why it’s so hard for them to recognize I have a disability, let alone accommodate it.”

There is another inmate in segregation who has diabetes and uses an oxygen tank; he should be in the med ward, said Nicloux.

“If they can’t accommodate people with disabilities, then we shouldn’t be in jail.”

Contact Genesee Keevil at