Incarceration without counselling results in conflagration

Michael Nehass set a fire inside the Whitehorse Correctional Centre on October 24. He used matches to burn his mattress and blanket.

Michael Nehass set a fire inside the Whitehorse Correctional Centre on October 24.

He used matches to burn his mattress and blanket.

“I tried to burn myself up,” he said during a telephone interview on Friday.

Nehass has been in segregation for, by his count, six and a half weeks. Other inmates confirm he has been inside a solitary cell, a cramped, windowless room that measures about 10 feet by eight, for at least a month.

It’s a familiar place for Nehass.

Last year, he spent more than three months in The Hole, as solitary is popularly called inside the prison.

He hates the place. And he hates how he is treated by guards. Hence the fire, which was quickly doused by guards, but produced enough smoke that the cellblock had to be evacuated.

Nehass is taunted and tormented by prison guards, say two other inmates.

He set the fire to protest being unable to use the phone. Before the fire, Nehass went weeks with no contact with friends or family, he said.

Eventually he lost it.

“They just made him escalate and escalate until he got out of hand,” said another inmate, who requested anonymity for fear of reprisal. “He wanted to use the phone. I think if they just let him use the phone, and calmed him down, things would have turned out differently.”

Now, he’s been granted limited phone access.

Nehass is also on suicide watch. He cut his arms with a razor about three weeks ago, he said.

As a consequence, he has no clothes save a thick blanket to wrap around himself.

For weeks he had to eat with his hands. Now, he’s got a plastic spoon.

There is no counselling or psychological help, he said.

He admits he deserved a week in The Hole.

“I had an outburst,” he said, after guards found his stash of tobacco concealed in a hole in the wall.

After a week, guards said there was nowhere to hold him, he said.

Now, nobody tells him when he can leave solitary.

He’s supposed to receive fresh air once a day, but hasn’t been out in a week, he said.

“The superintendent knows it’s hard for me to get up for air. So he marked it down specifically that I get up for air at 8 a.m.”

It’s hard to wake up because he’s medicated for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. It knocks him out at night and makes him groggy in the morning.

But without the medication he goes stir-crazy.

“Because I’m locked up in a small space, I have lots of energy and I feel trapped and I get claustrophobic,” said Nehass. “It ends up making me angry. I’m stuck in one spot.”

Officials won’t discuss Nehass’ case, saying it’s against policy to comment on individuals.

The troubled 24-year-old First Nation man has been in and out of the prison system for the past decade.

He’s racked up a string of criminal charges this year alone. Almost all relate to simply being unable to report to his parole office regularly. So he ends up back in prison.

He faces strict release conditions because of a Section 810 order. The order is issued to people believed to be at high risk of re-offending violent crimes.

It’s unclear what crime triggered the 810 order. But at 19, Nehass was sent to federal prison for two years for helping chop off the pinky finger of an indebted cocaine dealer. Nehass held down the man’s hand while an older man wielded a meat cleaver.

During Nehass’ sentencing, the judge found him to be “a seriously disturbed youth desperately in need of treatment.”

His mother had recently died. He was addicted to alcohol and drugs. He had, by then, already acquired a lengthy criminal record.

Since then, Nehass claims to have straightened up. But he can’t get a break, cycling in and out of jail.

His latest arrest came in early September for failing to report to his parole officer. He was working in a camp collecting field samples, and couldn’t check in, he said.

On October 2, while in prison, he was hit with an assault charge relating to an incident that occurred three months earlier, when he spat through the prison bars at Blaine Demchuk, Corrections manager.

Nehass blames Demchuk for his treatment. But there’s little that he can do. He could write a complaint, but it would be reviewed by Demchuk, he said.

He’s also given up on lawyers and the ombudsman. He’ll just serve his time. He expects to be released November 11.