Calls to Lydia Bardak are free from jail in the Northwest Territories.
She doesn’t have to be on any approved list and it doesn’t cost inmates a cent.
As executive director of that territory’s John Howard Society, she is often a lifeline for male inmates struggling in the correctional system.
She is a go-between for the inmates and the officials who run their lives. Sometimes it is easier to talk to her than to talk to someone in “the system,” she says.
“Inmates see the guards as the enemy, inmates don’t see it at a safe environment,” she said.
“Whether it’s the staff or other inmates, it’s a hostile environment, they just don’t have the trust.”
The John Howard Society of Canada is a national organization that promotes “just, elective, and humane” responses to crime. Though it’s reluctant to label itself a prisoner advocacy group, the organization is often called upon to speak out against practices within the justice system.
Each chapter is shaped by the community, the staff and volunteers that run it and in many cases the money that is put into it.
The Yukon and Nunavut are the only jurisdictions in Canada that don’t have a chapter.
Questions about the treatment of inmates at the Whitehorse Correctional Centre have come to light after the father of one inmate, Michael Nehass, filed a complaint with the Yukon Human Right Commission.
Nehass was brought naked and shackled into a video hearing in Yukon Supreme Court. His family claims he has been held in solitary confinement for 28 months. The Department of Justice disputes that claim.
The court is moving to have Nehass evaluated to determine if he is mentally fit to stand trial.
Though she does not know the details of Nehass’s specific case, Bardak is critical of the way the justice system deals with people with mental illness.
“We’re using correctional facilities for homeless shelters and mental health shelters,” she said.
The Northwest Territories have had their own public complaints regarding solitary confinement.
In March a judge ripped into the government for its treatment of a man who spent 132 days in an isolation cell during an eight-month sentence.
Brooklyn Palmantier was initially placed in the cell naked, handcuffed and shackled. There was no mattress, the water was turned off and he was not allowed to shower or use cutlery, according to court records. Though unconfirmed, Nehass’s human rights complaint alleges similar treatment.
Judge Bernadette Schmaltz found that the treatment Palmantier was subjected to was “cruel and unusual.”
“I cannot help but wonder how we can expect a person to behave in a respectful and civilized manner, when the state, the authorities, subject the person to inhumane and uncivilized conditions,” she said.
Statistics provided by the Yukon Department of Justice say the longest anyone has been in segregation over the past year is seven months. The longest uninterrupted time anyone has spent in solitary is just shy of four months.
In the Yukon there have been multiple attempts to start a John Howard Society since 2006.
“There’s not really much of a story there, it’s just that the people who are dedicated to these issues are already taxed with their own work or their own organizations,” said Katherine Alexander, the executive director of the Yukon’s Elizabeth Fry Society, which started up around the same time.
Elizabeth Fry deals with female inmates and people just released from jail, while John Howard focuses on men.
“What we can do at the Elizabeth Fry Society is start creating resources that are not gender based,” Alexander said. “They are for both men and women, and so that’s how we can help the men right now.”
With that goal is mind, the organization is creating a human rights action handbook for inmates – both male and female – to understand what their rights are and who is available to go to for help.
If an inmate has a complaint about the way he or she is treated in jail, the complaint must first go in writing to the person in charge, said Department of Justice spokesperson Dan Cable.
“If they don’t like what the answer was there, they can appeal that to the Investigations and Standards Office,” he said.
In 2012 there were 106 complaints to the ISO, and 16 went to a formal inquiry. In 2013, those numbers were 90 and 24, he said.
Cable said the office has investigated concerns raised by inmates regarding segregation but could not provide specific cases.
If an inmate does not like that decision, he or she can then complain to the Yukon ombudsperson or the Yukon Human Rights Commission.
Alexander said inmates often struggle to understand the process and what their rights are.
“People don’t even know how to access the ISO,” she said.
Alexander said she would welcome the creation of a John Howard Society chapter in the Yukon. But she says the problem is more complicated than can be solved by just creating another non-profit organization.
“It’s an uphill battle. I think it’s really important to have a John Howard. I look forward to the spark that gets one going. But it’s not the answer.”
Like Bardak, Alexander criticizes the justice system for its handling of inmates with mental illness.
“For anyone with mental health issues, where there is no therapeutic support, where all of the measures taken are for security reasons and for punitive reasons, they’re not going to adjust.”
Contact Ashley Joannou at