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Watching for progress at the Whitehorse Correctional Centre

There is an urgent need to move from talk to action

Julie Jai

It was encouraging to read David Loukidelis’s report on the Whitehorse Correctional Centre, and even more encouraging to see the Yukon Department of Justice’s response supporting most of the report’s recommendations.

If the report’s recommendations are implemented in word and in spirit, it will make a great difference to the lives of people incarcerated inside the WCC.

I see positive signs from the department’s response:

The acknowledgement that a shift in culture in corrections is required;

The intention to work in partnership with First Nation governments to create culturally sensitive programs and services and bring in practices that are better aligned with First Nation values;

The recognition of the urgent need to enhance mental health and addiction treatment services at the WCC;

The agreement that solitary confinement/segregation should only be used in exceptional situations and for very brief periods and that independent oversight should be available;

The commitment to greater transparency and accountability.

The Yukon government response expands on commitments made in the recent systemic agreement settling human rights complaints brought by four WCC inmates to the Yukon Human Rights Commission.

The government agreed to set up a forensic mental health unit at the WCC, improve policies relating to segregation, and recognizes the harmful effects of segregation, particularly for Indigenous people and those with mental disabilities.

While optimistic, I know that implementing the 40 recommendations in Loukidelis’s report will be challenging. But there is an urgent need to move from talk to action. The government’s next steps are described as “forming an implementation working group” and “developing an implementation plan.”

These are necessary steps, but potentially time-consuming. Meanwhile, today and tomorrow, people languish in segregation, often with untreated mental illness made worse by the lack of human interaction and programming, and human rights complaints continue to come in.

Things can be done while waiting for the partnering, consulting and planning to take place. The government can work on the culture shift and find specific actions that can be done easily, showing goodwill while also pursuing the longer-term transformation of corrections. The report references the need for more AA and NA meetings, hopefully including those in segregation. That’s just one of many good ideas.

I visited my first correctional institution when I was 12, as part of a Grade 9 enrichment program in law. We were definitely on the outside, looking in.

My next experience was from the inside – after being apprehended as a 14-year-old under the since-repealed Juvenile Detention Act, which gave police the discretion to throw kids in jail for what would now be considered normal teenage behavior. It was definitely a different experience being on the “inside” and experiencing what it was like to be treated as a criminal and presumed to be a “bad person”.

My later visits to jails were as an outsider – advising inmates as a law student; working with jail staff as legal counsel to Ontario’s Ministry of Correctional Services; visiting detention facilities on international fact-finding missions; and visiting inmates with human rights complaints at the WCC.

But my early experience as an “insider” shaped my worldview on the dangers of treating one group of people as “other” and highlighted the harms that can so easily occur in a prison environment where there is such a stark divide between those who have power and those who do not.

One of the heartening things about David Loukidelis’s report is that it is informed by many conversations with those at WCC. He states that “their intelligent and thoughtful stories gave me a much richer and clearer picture than I could otherwise have hoped for” and “contributed enormously to my work.”

Spending time really listening to those imprisoned makes it harder to separate them into a different category of “others” and instead promotes understanding, empathy and respect. It is on this human foundation that Yukoners can build for the future.

We need a prison culture where legal rights are respected, and where those “inside” can assert their legal rights without fear of retribution. Meaningful training programs should be available, and Indigenous artists who are willing to teach should be adequately paid and given enough time to run an effective program.

If inmates wish to smudge at the WCC, their sacred items should be properly handled, and elders should be available. Elders and other visitors who arrange to come to WCC should not be barred at the gate for paperwork reasons.

How can the Yukon bring about real, system-wide change at the WCC?

Change requires clear direction and support from the top. I am encouraged that this exists in principle, but it must be followed up by on the ground change.

Correctional officers and medical service providers need to see themselves as part of worthwhile change. This will involve training and a shift in culture, supported by clear policies and procedures, operationalizing the high-level direction set out by the report’s recommendations and the government’s response.

Staff should be guided by the principle that inmates at WCC are people and that, where possible, rules should be applied in a way that contributes to their well-being. Partners from outside the institution should be made to feel welcome.

Change depends on resources and empowerment. It’s not easy to find the people needed to help in the transformation without providing adequate compensation and the latitude and authority to make a difference.

Yukon Justice needs a PhD clinical psychologist to lead the mental health unit, trained addictions treatment providers, capable people to assist inmates at disciplinary hearings, and qualified people to sit as adjudicators.

Change requires that elders and artists and counsellors who want to come to the WCC to work are empowered in their area of endeavor and adequately compensated. First Nation partners who can support restorative justice approaches and culturally appropriate programming must be encouraged, respected and paid.

Establishing a secure forensic unit will take people and money. Legislative amendments will have to be passed. Implementing these changes will take resources and political will.

I am cautiously optimistic. I see positive signs. But I am watching. Watch with me.

Julie Jai is a lawyer, mediator and former acting director of the Yukon Human Rights Commission.