Jail staff testify at Michael Nehass hearing

A former deputy superintendent at Whitehorse Correctional Centre says Michael Nehass was "one of the most challenging and difficult inmates I've experienced in 30 years.

A former deputy superintendent at Whitehorse Correctional Centre says Michael Nehass was “one of the most challenging and difficult inmates I’ve experienced in 30 years.”

Meanwhile a retired jail guard described the 32-year-old as a “social animal” who used to tell stories and sing but that “faded” as his time in custody went on.

Their testimony this week was part of a hearing into whether the jail has violated Nehass’s rights in the more than four years he’s been in custody – mostly locked away from the general population.

The court heard from the jail’s former deputy superintendent of operations, Geoffrey Wooding, who took on that position in December 2013 and retired last month.

Former corrections officer David Ryce, who worked at the jail from 2005 to March 2015, also testified.

It’s clear Nehass has spent most of the last four years away from the general population in either segregation, which is usually used for discipline, or the secure living unit, which is known in jail as the SLU.

On the surface both units are similar, though the SLU has a TV in each cell, the court heard.

Exactly how much time Nehass has spent in each place, and how much of it has been out of a jail cell, has not clearly been laid out yet. The rules vary from inmate to inmate and change in segregation or the SLU, the court heard.

Wooding testified the jail made “extensive efforts” to keep Nehass on a general population unit.

But he threatened people, did extensive damage, broke cameras and smashed five TVs, Wooding said. That’s what prompted a “high level of security.”

At one point the jail stopped holding disciplinary hearings when Nehass misbehaved because they were “not proving effective,” he said.

Wooding denied being housed in the SLU would qualify as isolating.

He said Nehass has access to visitors, if he wants, and has been visited by family.

He said at one point the jail allowed his uncle – who was also in custody – to come to the unit to talk through Nehass’s shut cell door.

Wooding denied Nehass ever had his food restricted, though he admitted that Nehass at times refused to eat. That’s a choice an adult can make, Wooding said.

He said Nehass was given phone cards on a regular basis to pay for calls from jail since he didn’t have a job.

He once attended a “healing group” while living in the SLU. He had to do that while still locked in his cell with the meal hatch open.

Ryce took the stand Tuesday.

He first met Nehass close to the end of his first year on the job more than 10 years ago. He testified Nehass was a “very social animal” who always engaged with his cellmates.

He testified that “faded” after the move to the new jail.

Ryce said Nehass started to become worried about how his food was prepared and worried “about how people might be taking advantage of him.”

He had fears when it came to his medical care and worries about missing and murdered aboriginal women. He would write voluminous letters to anyone from United Nations officials to the prime minister.

As that behaviour increased staff became “less tolerant,” Ryce said. He later clarified he meant “we had no training in dealing with that kind of issue.”

There were times, Ryce said, that Nehass was restrained for several days, forced to wear handcuffs and shackles both inside and outside of his cell.

Ryce acknowledged that was against jail policy but said it “was ordered done.”

At points, when Nehass was allowed to shower, he remained handcuffed and shackled.

Ryce said he became concerned when he saw red marks around Nehass’s wrists and ankles and as well as sometimes broken skin from the restraints.

He said he wrote a report to his supervisors about it, but he doesn’t know what happened to that report.

At one point Nehass manufactured some rudimentary “guards” out of socks to wrap around his ankles and wrists, he said.

It’s not clear when Ryce wrote his report about the abrasions from the shackles. He agreed with Nehass’s lawyer that it could have been in 2013.

If that’s the case, it was likely before Wooding took on his job.

Wooding was also asked about concerns around Nehass’s shackles. He testified to one incident where he said multiple staff had witnessed Nehass tightening the shackles on himself.

Sometimes Nehass didn’t get the opportunity to go to the yard for fresh air if there weren’t enough guards to accompany him, Ryce said.

In segregation Nehass was only allowed out of his cell for one hour a day, Ryce said.

In the SLU the amount of time out can vary depending on what other inmates are living on the unit, Wooding testified.

There were occasions when Nehass was allowed out in the common area of the SLU with two or three other people, Ryce said, but those were “infrequent.”

Ryce testified he had concerns about the way Nehass was housed.

He was losing weight and sleeping 16 to 18 hours a day, he said. He used to sing and tell stories, now he was “just extremely depressed… and angry.”

“Michael has changed so much from when I first met him.”

Contact Ashley Joannou at