Yukon’s minister of justice announced Tuesday that she will be ordering an inspection of the Whitehorse Correctional Centre in a “matter of days or weeks” following the conclusion of Michael Nehass’s legal case.
“This case has raised a lot of questions that need to be addressed,” Tracy-Anne McPhee said in a phone interview Sept. 19.
“Most importantly in my view is what (were) the past and current processes for assisting inmates with mental health issues and how can those processes and services be improved…. So in my view, we’re now at the point in this matter and others where it’s appropriate for me to direct such an inspection.”
Under the Yukon’s Corrections Act, a minister of justice can order the inspection of a correctional centre when he or she finds it appropriate. The inspector, who is allowed to enter any part of the centre at any time and may “examine any thing or any record” save for inmate medical records, must produce a report for the deputy minister, who must then respond within 90 days and “indicate any proposed action to be taken as a result of the report.”
McPhee said that she hasn’t “quite formulated all of the points” she’ll be asking the inspector to report on, but that “we’ll be looking at the specifics of (the Nehass) case” along with any possible “general” issues. The department is currently looking for a “person with appropriate expertise and that is independent of the facility” to conduct the inspection, she added.
Nehass’s nearly six-year-long tangle with the Yukon justice system raised concerns about the treatment of WCC inmates with mental health issues and First Nations inmates as well as the use of solitary confinement. His case ended earlier this month when a Crown prosecutor put a stay on his charges; he’s since been transferred from a forensic psychiatric facility in Ontario to a civilian hospital in Kamloops, B.C.
McPhee said “separate confinement,” not “solitary confinement,” was used at the WCC. When asked whether reports that Nehass had been confined to his cell, alone, for up to 23 hours a day would not be considered “solitary,” McPhee said that it would be “something the inspection will determine.”
Yukon NDP leader Liz Hanson, who had previously called for an inquiry into the Nehass case, said the news of an inspection was a “very good first step” but stressed that the process would need to be held to high standards.
“We don’t know what the terms of reference or the scope of the (inspection)…. It’s got to have that kind of latitude one would expect from an open and credible analysis of what has gone on at Whitehorse Correctional Centre (since it opened),” she said.
“I think there’s a lot of people in the community and certainly from our experience, it’s an institution that has not lived up to the expectations that people had for a community corrections facility. So it’s really important that we get this right… If there’s a need for systemic change, I’m hopeful that the minister and the government will be open to that.”
Nehass’s lawyer, Anik Morrow, was more critical about the announcement.
“I’d like to know more about, how long is this going to take? Is this another study?” she said in a phone interview from Toronto, noting that multiple volumes of evidence about shortcomings at the WCC have already been heard in court.
“What happened here is not something that is suitable to an inspection. It is not about the physical plant. It’s about the people who didn’t know their job(s) and it’s about protocols and discretionary restraints to liberty that were imposed on an individual and he was kept in a room. Where are you going to go? You’re going to go look at the room and say, ‘Oh, it’s nice, it’s painted, it’s got a clean floor, it’s nine feet by eleven, it’s got a window, oh, this isn’t solitary because the UN makes reference to places with no windows, that’s not us?’”
“It’s not about the room, it’s the fact that you have to stare at the same walls every day for two years and you’re being watched … every day through cameras and people are staring at you sleep as the walk by, shouting at you through a closed door and you’re left with your thoughts on a daily basis and you go nuts. That’s what it’s about.”
Although Morrow said there is a “tremendous, wonderful opportunity to do something,” it’s going to be crucial for the department of justice to keep to process transparent and meaningful by bringing in organizations such as the Elizabeth Fry Society, Yukon Human Rights Commission and B.C. Civil Liberties Association that have extensive knowledge of solitary confinement and other correctional facility issues.
“I think that in order for it to be credible and for this to be done once and to be done right and to be done efficiently, that the process of … choosing the inspector, having the inspector go in, I think that needs to be more collaborative and more transparent,” she said.
Contact Jackie Hong at firstname.lastname@example.org