When the hospital is behind bars

Sometimes he thinks he's a rock star. Sometimes he thinks he's a member of the Hells Angels. But when he's thinking clearly he knows he's not well.

Sometimes he thinks he’s a rock star. Sometimes he thinks he’s a member of the Hells Angels.

But when he’s thinking clearly he knows he’s not well.

James is not his real name. The News has agreed to protect his identity while his mental health stabilizes.

At 19 years old, James is more familiar with psychiatric care than most teens. He had his first episode at 11 and was diagnosed as bipolar at 15.

Since then he’s been in and out of hospitals, trying to regulate the extreme mood swings that interrupt his life.

On July 7, a territorial court judge found James not criminally responsible for his actions because of his mental illness. He was ordered sent to hospital. His family believed their loved one was going to be treated as a patient.

James is in custody at the Whitehorse Correctional Centre. As an adult, he’s never been convicted of a crime.

In cases like James’s, the Yukon’s only correctional centre is also its only psychiatric hospital.

While other jurisdictions have secure psychiatric facilities for people with mental illness who are working their way through the justice system, in the Yukon, in most cases, that’s the jail.

In 1993, the Yukon minister of health designated Whitehorse Correctional Centre a hospital “for custody, treatment or assessment of an accused,” pursuant to section 672.1 of the Canadian Criminal Code.

That’s all it takes. No other rules, regulations or policies are required.


Stuck in limbo

In late June, during what his mother calls an “absolute highly manic, psychotic, delusional state,” James was found with a group of people and a small amount of cocaine in the car, his mom says. He was charged with possession.

Days later, in the same state, he was charged with uttering threats and intimidation.

He’s now in a much better, more stable place, his mom said.

Even though he’s been found not criminally responsible, his case is not officially over until a hearing by the Yukon Review Board. It’s the board’s job to determine an appropriate plan for what’s next. After that the charges will be dropped.

In severe cases the board can order treatment at a hospital Outside. Other times supports in the community are enough.

But that won’t happen until Aug. 8. By then, James will have been in jail more than a month.

In the meantime he’s stuck in limbo. He’s not a criminal, but he is an inmate. He hasn’t been convicted of a crime, but he’s in a cell, living with the general population, including people who have.

“How can you hold somebody as an inmate when they’re not criminally responsible?” James’s mom asked.

Anne (also not her real name) said she encouraged her son to consent to being found not criminally responsible, after being assured by everyone involved that he would be a patient with the same freedoms as a person being held at the Whitehorse General Hospital and not a jail.

“He agreed on not being criminally responsible in faith because they told him, ‘You would be designated as a patient… and with that you will have privileges.’ That’s why he agreed to it.”

But the word “patient” appears nowhere in the judge’s order. It’s not part of the jail’s lingo either.

“An inmate is described as anyone who is held at the correctional centre,” said Department of Justice spokesperson Dan Cable. “It could be a person on remand, it could be a person under the review board. Some people don’t like the description of inmate, but that’s the general description.”

If the jail is going to be designated a hospital, it should have the same level of support as a hospital, Anne said.


No room at the actual hospital

The secure medical unit at Whitehorse General Hospital has a total of seven rooms: five single rooms and two seclusion rooms.

The unit is designed “to allow for the optimal care and treatment of clients with a primary diagnosis of a mental health concern, during an acute phase of the illness,” according to the hospital website.

“Dedicated mental health nurses (registered nurses, registered psychiatric nurses and licensed practical nurses) staff the unit around the clock to provide assessment, support, medications and education.”

But it’s not the place for people to stay if they are involved with the justice system, the Department of Health and Social Services says.

“The secure medical unit can handle the acute care needs of a forensic mental health patient (someone in custody),” spokesperson Marcelle Dube explained in an email.

“So, if a person deemed not criminally responsible is in custody at WCC and breaks their arm or needs an appendectomy, the SMU will take care of them. Once that issue is resolved, the patient goes back.”

Cable acknowledged that the jail is not a forensic hospital.

An inmate assessment is done for each person who arrives at the jail, he said. Medical professionals on staff help decide what the needs are.

“Do we supply medical care for inmates? Of course we do. We have nurses on full time, we have doctors, and we have a psychiatrist on contract. We also offer other types of health care as well.”

A March 2014 report for the Yukon Department of Health and Social Services found that “psychiatric care at the jail, with a high risk population, is limited to two hours weekly.”

If an inmate were to have a psychotic break while at the jail, Cable said staff would “of course” transport them to the hospital and make sure the room at the SMU was appropriately secure.

If security is possible in some cases, why not all cases?

“It’s not necessary,” Cable insisted.

“If someone is stable, or reasonably stable in the facility and the doctors are saying that they’re reasonably stable, then they can be held at the facility.”

Human rights commission has ‘major concern’

As James sits in a cell in jail, the family is considering a human rights complaint.

The Yukon Human Rights Commission “has identified the treatment of people with mental illness in the Whitehorse Correctional Centre as a pressing human rights issue that requires immediate attention,” said Colleen Harrington, acting director of human rights for the commission.

Harrington wouldn’t talk about specific cases, but called mental illness a disability. By law, people with disabilities have the right to be accommodated.

“While inmates lose some rights while they are incarcerated, they certainly do not lose all of their rights. Human rights law gives people with mental disabilities the right to be accommodated for their disabilities while incarcerated,” she said.

“Based on our experience with a number of inmates at WCC, it appears that inmates with mental disabilities are not always being accommodated. Instead, their incarceration at WCC appears to have caused the mental condition of some inmates to deteriorate.

“This is a major concern. Other jurisdictions have secure psychiatric facilities where people with mental disabilities can receive appropriate medical treatment.”


Jail is no hospital

Anne knows what it means to leave a mentally ill child behind in a hospital. But at the jail there are significant differences, she said.

At the Whitehorse General Hospital’s secure unit, James could go outside. He could get phone calls. He could get food brought to him. With a doctor’s permission, he could sign out on day passes and spend time with his family.

“If there’s somebody very unwell, of course they’re not going to meet the criteria to get a day pass,” Anne said.

“But if they’re doing well and their doctor deems them well enough… they should be provided that right.”

Now, whenever she wants to see her son, Anne has to go through the jail’s screenings for weapons and drugs.

At the hospital, James could be seen by the doctors he knows and trusts. They could work on adjusting his medications, she said.

Anne says her son doesn’t trust the psychiatrist who is on contract with the jail. And she doesn’t trust the staff to adjust his medication. That’s something that needs to be done under 24-hour watch, she said.

“You can’t do that in a jail. They’re not equipped to do a med review and a med change.”

The phone rings while Anne is talking. The recording on the other end tells Anne she has a call from an inmate at the Whitehorse Correctional Centre.

James wants to know when he can get out of there.

“You got a lawyer,” she tells her son.

“Your new lawyer is going to try and get you into the hospital,” she says, pausing. “… As soon as she possibly can. OK?”

Anne says she’s concerned about what being in jail is doing to her son.

Seven months ago, he tried to kill himself.

“His doctors are considering a med change or a med review that would help prevent that depth of depression from occurring again. He needs a hospital for that,” she said.

As part of his illness he feels a lot of anger and anxiety. Being in jail “just feeds that,” she said.

Anne questions why the territory wouldn’t have an appropriate psychiatric transition facility to help with cases like this.

She accuses the government of being afraid.

“They’re scared that ‘if they build it they will come’ and it will show the scar on the Yukon of how many youth we have with severe mental illness.”

She says mental illness is everywhere, but no one wants to talk about it.

“Mental illness scares the hell out of people, even though it’s in everybody’s backyard. But it doesn’t appeal to the popular vote.”

If you look online, the policies and procedures for the Whitehorse Correctional Centre cover everything from emergency procedures to cell cleanliness rules. Yet a policy specifically dealing with people being held at the jail as a hospital is nowhere to be found.

That’s a concern for the NDP’s justice critic, Lois Moorcroft.

She says it’s not uncommon for correctional centres across Canada to be designated as a hospital.

“Before you take on having a hospital, you need to make sure correct policies are in place,” she said.

In an email, Cable said there is “a full health-care manual established with the expertise of our health-care service providers, although this is not online, and inmates who arrive at the correctional centre receive the same care or better of persons in the community. The standard of care is based on the community standard of care.”

Anne said her son knows he needs help. He thought that’s what he was going to get going this route.

“I’m not saying that people shouldn’t be held responsible. My kid is going to do whatever he can to right his wrongs, to get well, and to be a productive member of society. That’s all he wants.”

Contact Ashley Joannou at


Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Brendan Hanley gives a COVID-19 update during a press conference in Whitehorse on May 26. The Yukon government announced two new cases of COVID-19 in the territory with a press release on Oct. 19. (Alistair Maitland Photography)
Two new cases of COVID-19 announced in Yukon

Contact tracing is complete and YG says there is no increased risk to the public

Yukon Energy in Whitehorse on April 8. Yukon Energy faced a potential “critical” fuel shortage in January due to an avalanche blocking a shipping route from Skagway to the Yukon, according to an email obtained by the Yukon Party and questioned in the legislature on Oct. 14. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
Yukon Energy faced ‘critical’ fuel shortage last January due to avalanche

An email obtained by the Yukon Party showed energy officials were concerned

Jeanie McLean (formerly Dendys), the minister responsible for the Women’s Directorate speaks during legislative assembly in Whitehorse on Nov. 27, 2017. “Our government is proud to be supporting Yukon’s grassroots organizations and First Nation governments in this critical work,” said McLean of the $175,000 from the Yukon government awarded to four community-based projects aimed at preventing violence against Indigenous women. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
Yukon government gives $175k to projects aimed at preventing violence against Indigenous women

Four projects were supported via the Prevention of Violence against Aboriginal Women Fund

Yukonomist Keith Halliday
Yukonomist: You don’t know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone

When I was a kid, CP Air had a monopoly on flights… Continue reading

EDITORIAL: Don’t let the City of Whitehorse distract you

A little over two weeks after Whitehorse city council voted to give… Continue reading

Whitehorse City Hall. (Joel Krahn/Yukon News file)
City hall, briefly

A look at decisions made by Whitehorse city council this week

Northwestel has released the proposed prices for its unlimited plans. Unlimited internet in Whitehorse and Carcross could cost users between $160.95 and $249.95 per month depending on their choice of package. (Yukon News file)
Unlimited internet options outlined

Will require CRTC approval before Northwestel makes them available

Legislative assembly on the last day of the fall sitting in Whitehorse. Yukon’s territorial government will sit for 45 days this sitting instead of 30 days to make up for lost time caused by COVID-19 in the spring. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
Legislative assembly sitting extended

Yukon’s territorial government will sit for 45 days this sitting. The extension… Continue reading

Today’s mailbox: Mad about MAD

Letters to the editor published Oct. 16, 2020

Alkan Air hangar in Whitehorse. Alkan Air has filed its response to a lawsuit over a 2019 plane crash that killed a Vancouver geologist on board, denying that there was any negligence on its part or the pilot’s. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
Alkan Air responds to lawsuit over 2019 crash denying negligence, liability

Airline filed statement of defence Oct. 7 to lawsuit by spouse of geologist killed in crash

Whitehorse city council members voted Oct. 13 to decline an increase to their base salaries that was set to be made on Jan. 1. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
Council declines increased wages for 2021

Members will not have wages adjusted for CPI

A vehicle is seen along Mount Sima Road in Whitehorse on May 12. At its Oct. 13 meeting, Whitehorse city council approved the third reading for two separate bylaws that will allow the land sale and transfer agreements of city-owned land — a 127-square-metre piece next to 75 Ortona Ave. and 1.02 hectares of property behind three lots on Mount Sima Road. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
Whitehorse properties could soon expand

Land sale agreements approved by council

Most Read