Reports by the correctional department’s watchdog have raised concerns over documentation at the segregation unit in the Whitehorse Correctional Centre and recommended changes surrounding the mental health of inmates.
The investigations and standards office, or ISO, is designed to be the place where inmates go if concerns about the jail can’t be handled internally.
The office has completed two general investigations into separate confinement at the WCC.
It’s currently in the middle of completing a third.
In the most recent of the reports, from 2012, investigators looked at the six men who had at one point or another been held in long-term confinement between mid March and the end of May, meaning they were kept away from other inmates for at least 72 consecutive hours.
They found no clear documentation as to why.
“Of the six files reviewed, none contained documentation regarding the details or circumstances that led to the long-term confinement and the decision by management to place the individual on long-term confinement,” the report says.
That is similar to an earlier report from 2011, which found that “movements into or out of segregation were not always recorded.”
The lack of documentation was leading to confusion among the inmates as to what was going on and why, investigators said.
Jeff Ford, who runs the investigations office, said in an interview he believes the process has since been improved at the jail.
“It wasn’t that there wasn’t a management group that said, ‘We need to put this person in separate confinement… It’s just that maybe it wasn’t documented. The reasons for those recommendations are to say that in order to ensure that safeguards are in place around the use of separate confinement, that documentation has to be solid.”
In the Yukon, inmates can be held in solitary confinement for a variety of reasons including if they are a risk to themselves or others, or if they have been found guilty of breaking the rules while in custody.
Aside from making multiple recommendations surrounding paperwork, the 2012 report touches on the potential mental health issues that can be caused by this kind of treatment.
At the WCC a segregation cell is 3.8 metres by 2.4 metres, or eight by 12 feet.
The cell is the same size as a standard cell, with a few key differences. There is a steel door with a window, two exterior windows in the cell, an emergency call button, a stainless steel toilet and sink and a single bed. There is a built-in security camera. There is no TV.
“Separate confinement places an inmate in a cell for 23 hours a day, depriving them of meaningful social contact and interaction with others and with little sensory or mental stimulation,” the report says.
“While separate confinement is often used to address underlying behaviour by an inmate, it can also cause additional behavioural or health issues which the centre needs to manage such as depression, anxiety, rage, hallucinations, distorted perceptions, claustrophobia or cause the inmate to act out.”
Investigators in 2012 found only one person was visited by a medical professional to assess their mental health while locked away.
They recommended that “care plans to prevent psychological deterioration should be developed immediately after placing an inmate on long term confinement. ISO recommends that WCC consider developing policy regarding medical checks and care plans for individuals who are on long term confinement.”
The recommendations were all accepted by the Department of Justice, Ford said.
According to updated corrections policy, nursing staff are now to attend the segregation unit at least twice a day. Individual care plans are also developed for each inmate, according to department policy.
Ford said everyone in corrections has a “shared understanding” of the potential damage of segregation.
In the Yukon, any inmate who is held in long-term confinement is supposed to have his or her situation reviewed every 15 days.
It’s the responsibility of corrections officials to ensure all other avenues have been considered before keeping someone there, Ford said.
“We look at things like how much time does the inmate have out of cell, do they have access to health-care professionals including mental health professionals, do they have opportunities to socialize, do they have access to fresh air? Are there alternatives? Are they within the separate confinement or within a staged movement back to a regular unit? In our mind, corrections needs to look at those things and exhaust them before saying we need to extend within the current place.”
In 2011 the UN Special Rapporteur on torture called for solitary confinement of longer than 15 days to be banned.
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.”
The issue of solitary confinement in the Yukon has been brought to the forefront recently after a human rights complaint was filed on behalf of an inmate.
The family of Michael Nehass claims he has been held in solitary confinement for 28 months, something the Department of Justice denies. According to the department, the longest uninterrupted stretch in solitary that anyone has served is just shy of four months, though they won’t say which inmate that is.
Ford said he couldn’t talk about whether individual cases have been handled correctly at the jail.
“Am I aware of the corrections branch turning their mind to multiple options other than separate confinement? Yes I’m aware of that,” he said.
The ISO’s third investigation into separate confinement began in April.
Ford said the current investigation is examining both whether or not policies around separate confinement are being followed and whether or not those policies are appropriate.
He said plans for this investigation were in the works long before the Nehass family’s concerns were made public.
Earlier this year Nehass appeared on a courtroom TV screen shackled, naked, and pinned to the floor by guards in riot gear.
He is currently facing charges of assaulting a Watson Lake woman, threatening her with a knife and threatening to kill her family. Since being locked up, he has racked up charges for assaulting jail staff, destroying jail property and attempting to escape.
Next week the Justice Department will be in court to ask a judge to find him unfit to stand trial.
“Is the correctional centre designed to be a mental health institution? No. That’s clear, that’s well understood,” Ford said.
“Do inmates have access to counselling (and) mental health professionals, unfettered access both in separate confinement and any other part of the jail? Yes. And I am comfortable saying that access is not restricted and there are opportunities to ask for that type of counselling.”
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