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