Solitary confinement can be deadly for mentally ill inmates, watchdog says

Canada’s prison system faces a slew of issues, including the treatment of inmates with mental health issues, the high rate of Aboriginal incarceration and the overuse of solitary confinement, the country’s chief correctional watchdog says.

Canada’s prison system faces a slew of issues, including the treatment of inmates with mental health issues, the high rate of Aboriginal incarceration and the overuse of solitary confinement, the country’s chief correctional watchdog says.

“We know that the use of segregation has a different impact on mentally-ill individuals than people without mental health problem,” said Howard Sapers, the Correctional Investigator of Canada, in an interview.

“We called for a prohibition for individuals with known psychiatric disorders.”

The Correctional Investigator of Canada has the power to investigate complaints and make recommendations to address systemic issues within federal prison.

Sapers will give a public lecture Thursday night and a similar lecture to local lawyers and judges Friday.

The Yukon is facing some of the same issues Sapers has been looking at.

Since 2007 the News has regularly reported on the use of solitary confinement, especially in the case of Michael Nehass who has had lengthy stays in segregation raising concerns about his mental health.

Nehass is awaiting sentencing for a 2011 assault in Watson Lake. The case has been delayed by Nehass firing several of his lawyers and a charter application challenging his living condition at the Whitehorse Correctional Centre.

More recently an elderly man with dementia, Titus Charlie, was charged with assault in December 2015.

It took over three months for Charlie to be released from jail after the Yukon Review Board deemed him unfit to stand trial and ordered his placement in a group home. His lawyer at the time pointed out Charlie had no place in a jail because he has a cognitive impairment and had previously been found unfit to stand trial.

Segregation can be deadly for people with mental health issues.

Sapers said his office reviewed 30 suicides that took places in federal penitentiaries over the past three years. Roughly half happened while the inmates were in segregation.

“Every one of them had a known mental health condition,” he said. “We believe segregation can be very dangerous for some people.”

The correctional system needs to adapt to inmates with special needs, Sapers said.

Inmates with Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder for example aren’t able to follow prison routines, he said.

A study released in April showed 17.5 per cent of people in Yukon’s jail had FASD, compared to one per cent of the overall population.

Sapers also touched on the issue of programming.

Convicted inmates will sometimes choose to have a longer sentence to be sent to a federal penitentiary to receive federally funded programs, considered better than what’s offered at the Whitehorse Correctional Centre.

But Sapers cautioned against assuming those federal programs will automatically be delivered.

“While we have some very good programs, we have a very uneven experience in terms of those programs being delivered,” he said.

Some programs are not consistently available and the ones that get delivered have long waiting lists.

Correctional services deal with a lot of social problems that could have been dealt with before the person reached the system, Sapers acknowledged.

“Many issues in corrections could be avoided if we had better interventions and better strategies further upstream,” he said.

“I can’t think of anything less efficient or more expensive than dealing with people’s mental health issues once they’re convicted in a criminal court.”

The talk is part of the Maddison Chair in Northern Justice created in honour of the late Harry Maddison, a former Yukon Supreme Court justice who spent 30 years on the bench.

Howard Sapers will speak at 7:30 p.m. Thursday at Yukon College’s lecture hall.

-with files from Ashley Joannou

Contact Pierre Chauvin at pierre.chauvin@yukon-news.com

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