It’s been almost two years since Michael Nehass has been in the general population at Whitehorse Correctional Centre.
In that time he’s bounced back and forth between the jail’s segregation unit and secure living unit.
Both keep him from having contact with almost everyone else housed at the jail. Officials say his behavior has escalated to the point where he can’t be managed anywhere else.
The Yukon Department of Justice sees the two units as two different things.
But, if an inmate is considered high risk enough, policies suggest there could be very little difference between the two.
This week Nehass filed a court application claiming his time behind bars has violated his rights under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
“The applicant states that for much, if not the entire time while on remand at WCC he has been subject to egregiously unlawful and otherwise unlawful conditions of confinement, including, though not necessarily limited to, long-term segregation and separate confinement,” the document says.
In his application, Nehass says his rights have been violated, namely: his right to life, liberty and security, his right not to be arbitrarily detained, and his right not to be subjected to cruel and unusual punishment.
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Jail officials will be called to testify at a hearing in March.
That testimony is likely to be central to truly understanding Nehass’s condition.
Complex policies and confusing jargon make it difficult to simply count the number of days he has spent in each unit, even after documents were made public.
For example, when asked for a plain language explanation on the difference between the two units, justice spokesperson Caitlin Kerwin, in a written statement, said “segregation” – where an inmate is locked up for 23 hours – is for disciplinary matters and “separate confinement” is an administrative decision to separate people because of safety concerns.
But the report of Nehass’s disciplinary charges uses these terms differently. It lists the penalty as “separate confinement.”
No one from the department has returned phone calls to clarify.
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That report, written by Karen Shannon of integrated offender management, shows Nehass racked up 47 internal charges between January 2012 and July 2014.
Thirty-nine charges include a sentence of “separate confinement.” The penalties add up to more than 300 days over approximately 30 months.
The report talks about him fighting with other inmates, threatening corrections officers and causing major damage to whatever unit he was living in.
When it was written in November, Nehass was waiting for a disciplinary hearing on more charges.
Those 300-plus days are in addition to time Nehass has spent separately confined without disciplinary reasons.
According to the remand report, when Nehass arrived at the new jail in March 2012 he was held in a regular unit. There he assaulted six inmates and threatened another. By May 2013, jail officials concluded that Nehass could not safely go back to general population.
“Concern for Mr. Nehass’s mental health has been an ongoing issue through the last year and a half. He has demonstrated a great deal of paranoia and has been suffering from delusional behavior throughout this time,” Shannon writes.
The behaviors described by Shannon have also been linked to inmates who spend too much time in solitary.
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When an inmate is too unwell to be with the general population, but is not being isolated for disciplinary reasons, the amount of time they spend outside their cell may vary.
Such decisions are made on a case-by-case basis, said Kerwin, with the goal of being as least restrictive as possible.
Depending on their risk level, inmates could be held in the segregation unit or the secure living unit.
Shannon’s report talks about Nehass spending time in both places.
Regulations list what inmates are entitled to – one hour for exercise, access to visits, and so on. But fine print says that does not apply if the person in charge thinks it could endanger the inmate or others.
Jail policies say multiple inmates can be let out together if they get along. That’s assuming that there are multiple inmates in the unit.
Corrections officers have already testified that in 2013, when Nehass damaged his segregation unit, he couldn’t even shower without being shackled.
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Physically, the cells in both the segregation and secure living units are the same size: 3.8 metres by 2.4 metres.
The secure living units have television sets, while segregation does not.
And segregation units are designed to be more secure than normal cells, Kerwin said.
Segregation has cameras inside the cells, fewer things to damage and safety features that keep staff safe when interacting with the inmates, she said.
“Inmates who are in the segregation unit have access to elders, access to visits, access to phone calls, nurses visits at least twice a day, staff interact with them and check on them regularly, and senior management make rounds to assess them on a weekly basis.”
If someone is being separated not for disciplinary reasons, the idea is to get them back to a regular unit as soon as possible, she said.
They get a case manager and their progress is reviewed daily. A medical team is also involved, she said.
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Cases like Nehass fall far outside what the Whitehorse jail is used to dealing with.
According to government statistics, the average time a person stays there is less than a month.
Nehass has been in jail since December 2011 on charges out of Watson Lake. He is scheduled to go to trial in May.
Justice says the 2013 statistics show that only about seven per cent of the people at WCC end up being confined separately. For most people it was for 72 hours or less.
Shannon says Nehass has “consistently resisted all attempts at intervention by psychiatrists, psychologists and elders.”
In court Nehass is adamant that his time in jail is a result of a complicated government conspiracy.
He is alarmingly thin and often tells the court he is afraid of being poisoned or hurt in jail.
In November, when Shannon wrote the report, Nehass was being held at the secure living unit. He’d been there for about three months, this time despite an incident with staff, she says.
“Mr. Nehass has requested on a number of occasions since the incident… to move back to the segregation unit. This has not been granted.”
There’s no information on how things have gone since November.
Contact Ashley Joannou at