By Amy Kenny
If you’re wondering how so much went wrong for Michael Nehass inside the Whitehorse Correctional Centre, you’ll have to wait a little longer.
Last week, Yukon Justice Minister Tracy-Anne McPhee said the government will appoint an independent investigator to look into the WCC and its treatment of Nehass during the six years he was incarcerated. What McPhee didn’t say was when this is finally going to happen, or what the investigation will entail.
Which is ridiculous. This case didn’t fall into complete shambles overnight, and it wasn’t only in jail that things crumbled. An investigation should have taken place while the trial was ongoing, and it should have looked beyond the WCC to get a full understanding of everything that broke down for Nehass, 33, who is a member of the Tahltan Nation.
Nehass entered the WCC in 2011 and was caught in the Yukon justice system until last week, when his charges (for assault and forcible confinement) were stayed. He is a diagnosed schizophrenic and has been sent to a psychiatric hospital in B.C.
There are plenty of reasons the trial dragged on for so long. After Nehass was initially found guilty, a mistrial was declared. He incurred new charges at the WCC for assaulting a guard. He hired and fired multiple lawyers, and briefly represented himself. The Crown put forth an application to have Nehass declared a dangerous offender, which stalled proceedings. Nehass’s father filed a human rights complaint after his son appeared in court via camera — naked, shackled, and begging for a towel while guards pinned him to the floor of his cell.
The investigation, presumably, will only look at what happened to Nehass at the WCC. But, as his lawyer said last week, Nehass didn’t suffer from a failing of the physical building. What he suffered was a breakdown in response at all levels of the Yukon’s justice system.
Over the course of six years, Nehass was volleyed back and forth between judges and review boards, each of which found him to be of varying levels of fitness to stand trial. Mental health experts declared Nehass psychotic, something immediately clear to anyone who sat in court while he outlined conspiracy theories that tied together Yukon judges, the RCMP, the CIA, missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls, microchip implants Nehass believed he’d received at the WCC, and more.
Multiple experts agreed the ongoing deterioration of Nehass’s mental health could be attributed to the long periods of time he spent in segregation. Records from 2015 show he spent 350 days there over the course of two years. Sometimes he was segregated as punishment. Other times, he was segregated to keep him away from fellow inmates. Other times, for behavioural issues the WCC was unable to address.
The director of correctional services herself testified in 2014 that Nehass had exhausted all the resources the jail could provide him. The facility, and the territorial government, were unable to help him.
That was three years ago, and even then it wasn’t the first time it happened. In 2007, Nehass, then 23, spent time at the WCC on a separate charge. The judge who sentenced him noted he was in desperate need of treatment. Instead, he spent three months in segregation. Nehass tried to file a complaint with the Yukon ombudsman — at the time, one Tracy-Anne McPhee.
Now it seems too little too late — the investigation, the memorandum that’s going to be written by Justice Ron Veale, the staying of charges which, even if convicted, would have resulted in a lesser sentence than Nehass has already served.
Michael Nehass wasn’t the first inmate with complex mental health issues and he won’t be the last. McPhee has acknowledged the majority of inmates at the WCC (with a capacity of 190) have mental health issues. NDP leader Liz Hanson has noted the WCC is often substituted for the kind of mental health facility the Yukon is lacking, even though the territorial government’s 2016 mental wellness strategy emphasizes the role of the justice system in the mental wellness of communities.
This investigation needs to look at more than just what goes one behind the walls at 25 College Drive.
Professionals have declared Nehass both fit and unfit to stand trial. It needs to ask how that discrepancy exists, and how we can establish a way of addressing it?
It needs to ask how it’s possible there are no facilities in the Yukon with the capacity to deal with acute mental health issues such as Nehass’s, and it needs to prioritize establishing some.
It needs to look at the current rules around solitary confinement (according to the Yukon Corrections Act, 15 days at a stretch, though there is an option to renew, and there are no rules about how long an inmate must spend out of segregation before being placed there for a second time), and ask how they can be not only imposed at a policy level, but obeyed day-to-day.
It needs to ask how anyone is supposed to learn any lessons from this case when the Crown stayed charges against Nehass, meaning his lawyer’s allegations of Charter rights violations will never be addressed.
It needs to question the process for referrals to First Nations land-based healing camps, which McPhee mentioned last week, and how often they’re made by the WCC.
This investigation needs to do more than officially ask the questions that have been hanging over this case for six years. It needs to go beyond what happened to Michael Nehass. It needs to find answers and it needs to implement solutions.
The systemic issues faced by inmates at the Whitehorse Correctional Centre are not new. It’s absurd to think Nehass is the only inmate who faced them, or is facing them right now. Those inmates can’t wait any longer.
Amy Kenny is a Whitehorse-based writer whose work has appeared in the Whitehorse Daily Star, Walrus, Vice, Up Here, Explore, Canadian Geographic, and National Geographic Publishing.