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Yukon government reaches settlement on WCC human rights complaints

Agreement includes terms on mental health, Indigenous inmates and the use of segregation
The Yukon government has reached a settlement on four consolidated human rights complaints filed against the Whitehorse Correctional Centre (WCC) by former inmates, agreeing to terms related to mental health, First Nations programming and the use of segregation. (Joel Krahn/Yukon News file)

The Yukon government has reached a settlement on four consolidated human rights complaints filed against the Whitehorse Correctional Centre (WCC) by former inmates, agreeing to terms related to mental health, First Nations programming and the use of segregation.

The settlement agreement was signed by the parties — the complainants, the Yukon government and the Yukon Human Rights Commission (YHRC) — over the course of about a week in May but was not made public until July 24.

The complainants’ names are redacted in the public copy of the settlement. They filed separate complaints to the YHRC in 2014 over the use of segregation and separate confinement on inmates with mental health issues and the availability of mental health services within the WCC. Some of the complaints also took issue with the adequacy of programming and services for First Nations inmates, and all alleged systemic discrimination.

The Yukon Human Rights Panel of Adjudicators consolidated the complaints in July 2017.

Segregation complaints withdrawn

The settlement agreement touches on three key areas — mental health care services for WCC inmates, Indigenous inmates, and the use of separate confinement and segregation — and lays out terms for each.

Those terms include the establishment of a forensic mental health unit led by a clinical psychologist in the WCC within 12 months of the signing of the agreement, more stringent record-keeping on the use of segregation and separate confinement, the introduction of human rights training for WCC staff and seeking out “recommendations regarding the further consideration of Indigenous social history” into the WCC’s policies and practices.

The Yukon government must also create a work plan within six months of the agreement’s signing outlining how it plans to implement the terms.

The YHRC will be providing the human rights training to WCC staff, which will include an orientation session on human rights, which will become part of the basic training for corrections officers, as well as “high-level” sessions for management.

The settlement also states that by signing the document, the complainants agree to “withdraw their demands for systemic remedies from the Board of Adjudication relating to the segregation or separate confinement of inmates with mental health issues,” and that the Yukon government entered the agreement “without any admission of liability or wrongdoing.”

In a phone interview July 24, YHRC director Jessica Lott Thompson said that the focus of the settlement was “creating positive systemic change for the future.”

“Our position still remains that segregation has particularly harmful effects on … prisoners with mental illness and Indigenous prisoners, and that there are important systemic reasons why the use of this practice should ultimately be ended. But we really see this settlement as a positive step towards improving the lives of prisoners and this settlement and the commitments that YG has made are going to be a really important step towards addressing areas of systemic concern in the correctional system here in Yukon,” she said.

Confidentiality clause waived

Lott Thompson explained that while the YHRC has dealt with systemic settlements before and that they are a “core part” of the Commission’s function, the settlements are typically kept confidential.

“I think it says something really positive about the commitment that the Yukon government is making to this change, that they have chosen to consent to having this settlement be public, and that that was part of the terms of the settlement, was not to have the confidentiality clause in there,” she said.

The YHRC will be monitoring and “seeking ongoing updates” on the Yukon government and WCC’s progress over the “coming months and years,” she added. The settlement is a “contractual obligation” and can be enforced the same way as a court order.

The Yukon government did not provide anyone for an interview on the settlement before deadline.

In a YHRC press release on the settlement, assistant deputy minister of community justice and public safety Allan Lucier, whose portfolio includes the WCC, said that the justice department was “pleased” to reach the agreement and was looking forward to working with the YHRC on implementing its terms.

“This settlement is a strong signal of our ongoing efforts and intent to improve how we provide mental health care services and manage those in custody at the Whitehorse Correctional Centre,” Lucier said in the release.

In an email, justice department spokesperson Catherine Young added that the agreement is “the farthest reaching Yukon Human Rights settlement in respect of corrections.”

A history of trouble

Since its opening in March 2012, the WCC has attracted a number of human rights complaints — far beyond the four that are the subject of the settlement agreement — and allegations of the improper use of separate confinement and segregation, especially for inmates with mental health issues.

Among the most recent allegations of mistreatment are from now-convicted murderer Darryl Sheepway, who, in a petition filed to the Yukon Supreme Court earlier this year, alleged that he was kept in his cell for up to 22 hours a day and was only allowed minimal contact with other inmates for more than 17 months.

One of the most high-profile WCC inmates was Michael Nehass, whose case and nearly six-year-long saga with the Yukon justice system attracted national attention and raised questions about the use of solitary confinement and the treatment of First Nations inmates and inmates with mental health issues at the facility. (Nehass also filed a human rights complaint against the WCC. It was not one of the four settled.)

In an interview July 25, Nehass’s lawyer Anik Morrow was critical of the settlement agreement. She said that the document was full of “loopholes” the Yukon government could use to avoid taking any concrete action in terms of proper consultation with Yukon First Nations and ensuring inmates have proper access to mental health services, and its terms only further allowed the WCC to justify its continued use of separate confinement and segregation.

She cited the section of the settlement dealing with Indigenous inmates as an example, which she noted only says that the WCC has to “seek recommendations” on better accommodating First Nations inmates. There’s no explicit clause saying that the WCC actually has to act on the recommendations, Morrow said, nor does it mention, specifically, who the WCC should consult with other than “Indigenous resources.”

She was also skeptical of how effective a forensic mental health unit would be, claiming that the psychiatrist who assessed Nehass had his “hands tied.”

“(The WCC is) just going to say, ‘Yeah, we have one of those.’ But in the end, is it actually going to serve the needs of the population that comes to the WCC? … There’s a difference between an expression of goodwill and truly being committed to creating a solution,” she said.

“There’s two ways to look at this agreement,” Morrow continued. “One is, see the glass half-full and say, ‘Well, at least we haven’t been locked out and shut down … On the other hand, here’s what happened. We had people who had the courage to come forward, mentally ill Indigenous people in the facility, who actually made complaints and they have let go of their identity and they have let go of their claims and they have let go of their requests for systemic remedy in return for this document.

“What does this document actually say it’s going to do? It says it’s going to, it wants to preserve its ability to continue incarcerating mentally ill people and segregating them, and it wants to continue segregating mentally ill Indigenous offenders and Indigenous offenders. And at the end of the day, the document speaks to trying to the extent possible to make that situation more humane… It’s better than nothing, but unfortunately, that’s the way you measure progress. So, you say, ‘The glass is empty.’ Well, now the glass is a little bit better than completely empty. Is that the way you move forward?”

Contact Jackie Hong at