Inmate files human rights complaint over solitary confinement

On a cold morning last January, Michael Nehass appeared in a Yukon courtroom on a TV monitor. He was shackled and pinned to the floor by jail guards in full riot gear. Nehass himself was naked, and screaming incoherently.

On a cold morning last January, Michael Nehass appeared in a Yukon courtroom on a TV monitor.

He was shackled and pinned to the floor by jail guards in full riot gear.

Nehass himself was naked, and screaming incoherently.

Within minutes of Nehass’s hearing beginning, the director of Yukon legal aid protested on the prisoner’s behalf, arguing that the troubling scene unfolding was unnecessary, and that Nehass should be allowed to go back to his cell.

Justice Leigh Gower, who had ordered the appearance and cleared the courtroom upon learning Nehass was naked, leaned into the microphone at his bench and asked Nehass if he could hear him.

“I am pleading not guilty,” Nehass said immediately, ignoring the judge’s question and launching into a rant about the court and the Crown having no authority over him.

Gower asked him to stop, before pressing ahead with a list of charges that Nehass was facing, including attempting to escape the Whitehorse Correctional Centre and numerous assaults.

“Your honour, can you ask the guard to (let me) sit down in a chair?” Nehass asked, interrupting.

“I would like to sit up and talk to you (but I) can’t with my face twisted into the fucking floor,” he said.

Minutes later, when Nehass was pulled in front of the camera, he began shouting again.

“You have to be quick man, hurry up … Cover up my penis, man, cover up my penis; it’ll be fucking seen on camera,” he said.

Throughout the ordeal, Nehass alternated between nonsense and arguing that the court has no authority over him. He is, he said, a sovereign First Nation individual unbound by any agreements with either Canada or the Yukon.

His family, he said, is arranging an international lawyer to fight a United Nations injunction against the treatment he has endured at the Whitehorse Correctional Centre.

Eventually, a towel was brought to cover his groin and he was ultimately led back to his solitary confinement cell. The court is now moving to have Nehass evaluated by a psychologist to determine if he is mentally fit to stand trial.

But his family wants to stop that from happening. His father, Russell, has filed a human rights complaint against the Yukon Department of Justice over how Nehass has been treated.

In the complaint documents, Nehass says he has been held in solitary confinement for 28 months straight.

The document also claims that Nehass suffers from several mental disorders that are known to correctional staff at the institution and have been exacerbated by his time in solitary.

Nehass was arrested in December 2011 for a string of charges after he threatened a woman and her family with a knife, and forcibly confined her. He has spent almost all of his time in custody in either separate confinement or segregation, according to the complaint.

Since being locked in solitary, Nehass has racked up four more threats, two assaults on jail staff, more than $10,000 in damage to jail facilities and an attempted escape. During one incident last summer, tear gas was used against him in his cell.

According to his father’s statements in the complaint, Nehass’s psychological condition is deteriorating. His ramblings about being a sovereign individual often accompany requests to call the Chinese Embassy and worries that the Freemasons control everything at the jail.

“The family is very concerned that he’s been in solitary for so long,” said Linda Bonnefoy of the Yukon Civil Liberties Society.

“We believe he’s suffering from PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) due to 28 months in isolation. We believe they are attempting to classify him as criminally insane to justify the cruel and unusual treatment he has been subjected to at Whitehorse Correctional Centre.”

Solitary confinement in Canada has recieved a lot of media attention recently since last fall’s inquest into the death of Ontario woman Ashley Smith.

Smith was held in segregation for four years at a prison in Kingston, Ont. before eventually killing herself while guards looked on but didn’t intervene.

A 1999 study by the Correctional Service of Canada found that spending 60 days in solitary confinement is “individually destructive, psychologically crippling and socially alienating.”

In August, Canada’s correctional investigator Howard Sapers told CBC News he is alarmed by the rising use of segregation and solitary confinement in Canadian prisons.

“Segregation units are being used to house a marginalized, compromised, vulnerable population,” Sapers said.

“Some of those folks may need medical supervision and instead they’re getting security supervision in a segregation cell,” which is leading to increased rates of self-harm and suicide attempts, Sapers said.

Yukon Justice Department spokesman Dan Cable would not confirm how long Nehass has been in segregation, or whether he was stripped against his will before his court appearance on Jan. 22.

“We do our best to ensure that inmates present themselves as best they can,” Cable said.

“It’s up to the inmate to appear in court in a way that is suitable.”

Contact Jesse Winter at

jessew@yukon-news.com

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

In a Feb. 17 statement, the City of Whitehorse announced it had adopted the what3words location technology used for emergency response. (Haley Ritchie/Yukon News)
Three words could make all the difference in an emergency

City of Whitehorse announced it had adopted the what3words location technology

Jesse Whelen, Blood Ties Four Directions harm reduction councillor, demonstrates how the organization tests for fentanyl in drugs in Whitehorse on May 12, 2020. The Yukon Coroner’s Service has confirmed three drug overdose deaths and one probable overdose death since mid-January. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
Three overdose deaths caused by “varying levels of cocaine and fentanyl,” coroner says

Heather Jones says overdoses continue to take lives at an “alarming rate”

Wyatt's World for Feb. 24, 2021.
WYATT’S WORLD

Wyatt’s World for Feb. 24, 2021.

Approximately 30 Yukoners protest for justice outside the Whitehorse courthouse on Feb. 22, while a preliminary assault hearing takes place inside. The Whitehorse rally took place after the Liard Aboriginal Women’s Society, based in Watson Lake, put out a call to action over the weekend. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News)
Courthouse rally denounces violence against Indigenous women

The Whitehorse rally took place after the Liard Aboriginal Women’s Society put out a call to action

The now empty lot at 410 Cook Street in Whitehorse on January 19. As developers move forward with plans for a housing development that would feature 16 micro-units, they are asking city council for a zoning change that would reduce the number of required parking spaces. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News)
Parking problems predicted

Zoning amendment would create more on-street parking issues, residents say

Susie Rogan is a veteran musher with 14 years of racing experience and Yukon Journey organizer. (Yukon Journey Facebook)
Yukon Journey mushers begin 255-mile race

Eleven mushers are participating in the race from Pelly Crossing to Whitehorse

David Malcolm, 40, has been charged with assaulting and attempting to disarm a police officer after an incident in Whitehorse on Feb. 18.	(Phil McLachlan/Capital News)
Man resists arrest, assaults officer

A Whitehorse man has been charged with assaulting and attempting to disarm… Continue reading

Yukon Energy in Whitehorse on Aug. 4, 2020. A site on Robert Service Way near the Alaska Highway has been selected as the future home of Yukon Energy’s energy storage project. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
Site selected for Yukon Energy battery project

Planned to be in service by the end of 2022

The Yukon government and the Yukon First Nations Chamber of Commerce have signed a letter of understanding under the territory’s new procurement policy. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
First Nation business registry planned under new procurement system

Letter of understanding signals plans to develop registry, boost procurement opportunities

US Consul General Brent Hardt during a wreath-laying ceremony at Peace Arch State Park in September 2020. Hardt said the two federal governments have been working closely on the issue of appropriate border measures during the pandemic. (John Kageorge photo)
New U.S. consul general says countries working closely on COVID-19 border

“I mean, the goal, obviously, is for both countries to get ahead of this pandemic.”

Legislative assembly on the last day of the fall sitting in Whitehorse on Nov. 22, 2018. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
Start of spring sitting announced

The Yukon legislature is set to resume for the spring sitting on… Continue reading

Whitehorse City Hall. (Joel Krahn/Yukon News file)
City hall, briefly

A look at decisions made by Whitehorse City Council this week

(Submitted)
History Hunter: Kwanlin Dün — a book of history, hardship and hope

Dǎ Kwǎndur Ghày Ghàkwadîndur: Our Story in Our Words is published by… Continue reading

Most Read