A group of lawyers and a Vancouver-based legal advocacy organization have condemned the Yukon government’s decision to turn an unused unit at the Whitehorse jail into the territory’s new, and only, halfway house.
In letters sent to Department of Justice officials May 4, 11 members of the Yukon legal community and the Pivot Legal Society argued that repurposing Unit E of the Whitehorse Correctional Centre (WCC) defeats the purpose of having a supervised transitional facility.
The letters are also addressed to officials with the John Howard Society, a justice-focused NGO that’s running the programming at the facility.
“The point of a halfway house is to transition to the community,” the letter from the lawyers reads in part.
“Therefore, the plan to move this service into a prison is at odds with that rehabilitative goal.”
Similarly, Pivot’s letter argues that placing “a community facility focused on rehabilitation and reintegration inside an operating prison undermines the purposes of the correctional system; exposes clients to harm, stigma and discrimination; and may infringe their constitutionally-protected right not to be subjected to any cruel or unusual treatment or punishment.”
“We urge you to halt your plan,” the letter says.
The Yukon’s previous halfway house, the Salvation Army owned-and-run Yukon Adult Resource Centre (ARC), closed on April 30. The Yukon government announced plans earlier that month to retrofit Unit E at the WCC, have it designated as a separate entity from the jail and begin a partnership with the John Howard Society to ensure services for men at the ARC wouldn’t be interrupted.
The 40-bed, three-tiered facility opened May 1.
Whitehorse criminal defence lawyer Jennie Cunningham, who helped organize the letter from the legal community, said she was in “disbelief” when she first heard of the plan.
“I do think about my clients in Whitehorse Correctional Centre and how it would affect them when there’s a halfway house basically attached to the same building… I think it would definitely create further trauma to people who are already experiencing a lot of trauma in prison,” she said, describing the jail as a “psychologically oppressive” structure.
Another lawyer, Benjamin Bruce Warnsby, said the new facility’s location raised questions for him about whether it would even be worth seeking to have clients moved from the jail.
“What my mind goes to is, is it really bail?” he asked. “Is it really reasonable bail for a client to go to what’s called a halfway house but it’s basically a cell block to the jail that, yes, there might be a separate entrance, yes, there might be a little more freedom to come and go but it’s still behind a barbed-wire fence?”
The letters raise four key concerns about the new facility — the lack of consultation with Yukon First Nations on the plan, the continued lack of a halfway house for women in the Yukon, the impact decommissioning a unit will have on the WCC’s remaining population, and that a halfway house “should not be located in a prison complex.”
Both the lawyers and the Pivot Society are calling for the facility to be moved elsewhere. They’re also asking the Yukon government to put more facilities in the communities.
In a joint interview May 5, however, Allan Lucier, the Yukon’s assistant deputy minister of justice, Andrea Monteiro, the Yukon’s director of corrections, and Mark Miller, CEO of the John Howard Society of British Columbia, said a relocation of the facility at Unit E is not on the table.
“I would say, absolutely no, not at this point,” Lucier said.
Lucier noted the amount of planning that’s gone into transitioning Unit E into a residential facility and said having the John Howard Society, a nationally-recognized and well-respected organization, on board speaks to the “value and opportunity” the arrangement presents.
“I’ve got 30 years in the public safety realm, the John Howard Society’s been in that realm the entire time I’ve been in it … I don’t believe they would sell their beliefs, their mandates, their best intentions, down the river to simply come and help us out on a predicament that we found ourselves in,” Lucier said.
“So currently, (the facility is) at the corrections complex that houses WCC and now the new program, that is our intention to maintain it there until and if the next best idea comes along. I think that’s about as firm as I can be on that.”
Monteiro and Miller said they stood by their previous comments to the News that the proximity of the facility to the jail wouldn’t be a detriment but a benefit, allowing for the institutions to work together on ensuring a smooth transition for inmates.
“The physical space is important and I know that it’s important,” Monteiro said.
“However, I think with some retrofitting, it doesn’t necessarily have to be a barrier to delivering humane or effective programs and supports for justice-involved clients, and this is really an opportunity I think to showcase that, of how we can use a space to do good within corrections and to do things that are a little bit different than have been done elsewhere.”
She also said that contrary to the letters, repurposing Unit E had not led to an increase in rotational lockdowns at the jail, and that the unit had sat unused for a year due to the jail’s low inmate population.
Miller reiterated the John Howard Society’s support for the new facility, describing it as an “innovative opportunity to try something different.”
“A key for us is perhaps not what the program space was but … more what it can be,” he said.
Both Warnsby and Cunningham, however, said they don’t believe there’s a way to make a halfway house located in the same complex as the WCC work, no matter the amount of renovations done to the space.
While they said they don’t oppose using Unit E as a short-term solution in the wake of the ARC’s closure, they’re against it becoming the permanent replacement.
“Halfway houses have to be community-based — a halfway house should be halfway between jail and the community and that’s not the case with the relocation to E-Unit,” Warnsby said.
“The closure of the ARC … (presents) an opportunity for Yukon government to really work hard to develop a new healthy and effective corrections system in Yukon and if they just continue to say, ‘We’ll use E-block, that’s fine,’ it unfortunately really appears that a really strong opportunity is going to be lost forever … We continue to call on Yukon government and all parties to develop an effective and safe, healing halfway house in Yukon.”
Contact Jackie Hong at firstname.lastname@example.org