EDITORIAL: Yes, even killers deserve due process

No one benefits when the Yukon government is focused on denying it uses solitary confinement

Yukoners who don’t spend a lot of time focused on the justice system here likely missed a really important concession made by the Yukon government in court earlier this month.

The territory finally acknowledged that the Whitehorse Correctional Centre (WCC) uses solitary confinement.

Up until this point, government flack have avoided talking about solitary confinement in the territory, at one point even demanding a correction when we dared to use that phrase in the newspaper. (We told them to kick rocks, for what it’s worth.)

Instead, the purveyors of government talking points have always done verbal gymnastics to avoid the phrase, calling cells where inmates are kept away from the general population “segregation” or the “secure living unit.”

Don’t let the names fool you, the two units are essentially the same thing, with the exception of televisions being available in the secure living unit.

In both cases inmates can be kept locked in their cell, or left unlocked but alone in the unit, without any meaningful human contact, for an extended period of time.

In some cases, the Yukon court heard, inmates may be confined in their cells for up to 22 hours a day.

That’s the United Nation’s definition of solitary confinement. A defence lawyer says so, the government lawyers say so, now the rest of the government needs to start saying so in order for real change to happen.

The admission came during the hearing brought forward by Darryl Sheepway who is seeking to have regulations governing the separate confinement of inmates at the WCC struck down as unconstitutional.

Sheepway says he was kept in the WCC’s secure living unit for 18 months before he was eventually convicted of murder and sent to a federal prison Outside.

WCC officials may have had good reasons to keep Sheepway, a former guard, away from the rest of the inmates but that doesn’t mean they should be allowed to lock him up there without due process.

The WCC’s own policies say that the decision to keep someone separate is supposed to be reviewed. Based on what was testified to in court, it appears that Sheepway’s reviews were little more than rubber-stamping the decision to keep him in the same place.

In the Yukon there’s no limit on how long separate confinement can last and, Sheepway’s lawyer argued, no way for an inmate to truly appeal the jail’s decisions. That cannot continue.

The mental and emotional damage that can be caused by extended time in solitary confinement is well documented.

Confinement away from interaction with other people, whatever name it’s given, cannot be for an indefinite duration and must be a last resort.

The conditions under which an inmate is separately confined must be overseen by an external, independent, review process.

Yes readers, (who we can already hear screaming for our blood), even those accused of killing another human being deserve the appropriate due process.

The jail’s current Investigations and Standards Office — which is supposed to be a place where the jail’s decisions can be reviewed — does not appear to be enough. When Sheepway complained about his situation to those officials he testified that little changed, beyond being provided with additional paperwork.

The standards office is funded within the Yukon Department of Justice, making it hard to appear independent. Though the office can, in theory, step in on individual cases, when it comes to systemic issues, like the jail’s overall use of solitary confinement, the office can only make recommendations, not binding orders.

The office has also been previously criticized by the Yukon Human Rights Commission for appearing to not have a clear understanding of the law.

The federal government is currently fighting its own battle over the use of solitary, and much like in the Yukon, the federal Liberals are being accused of playing semantics with wording as opposed to actually implementing change.

Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale has been busy disputing claims that a bill to end solitary confinement in Canada’s federal prisons will merely maintain the practice under a different name.

Goodale promises that the federal government’s policy will be more humane if Bill C-83 is passed.

Currently, he said, inmates are confined to their cells for up to 22 hours a day “with little or nothing in the way of meaningful human contact or rehabilitative programming.” (Essentially what the Yukon is being accused of as we speak.)

Under the legislation, if it is passed, Goodale said inmates will now get twice as much time out of their cells and at least two hours of meaningful human contact every day. As well, they will have access to mental-health care, rehabilitation programs and other intervention services not available to segregated prisoners now.

Independent Sen. Kim Pate, a former prisoners’ rights advocate with the Canadian Association of Elizabeth Fry Societies, has called the proposed changes “a cynical exercise” and argued that it would actually make it easier to put an inmate in segregation and to leave them there.

Goodale — obviously — disagrees. Currently, in federal prisons, the decision to put a prisoner in segregation is up to the warden, and though decisions can be reviewed, any recommendations are only suggestions and don’t have to be followed.

The federal bill would create an external, independent oversight body for federal prisions empowered to monitor the use of segregation and make binding orders that must be followed.

That is a change to federal prisons that the Yukon should follow for our territorial jail. A new territorial separate confinement oversight body should be created, not the current standards office within the Justice Department, but a truly arm’s-length organization. That group should have the ability to make binding orders around systemic change.

The Yukon Liberals don’t have to wait for Justice Ron Veale’s decision on the Sheepway application to make changes. Since taking over government in the Yukon there has been a lot of talk about reform at the jail. The Liberals even went so far as to fund an independent investigation that came up with a laundry list of recommendations. Yet since that report came out there has been radio silence regarding if and when the recommendations will be implemented.

Words matter and recommendations are important but if they don’t lead to actual change then we are just wasting our time.

(AJ)

Just Posted

Finance employee charged with allegedly defrauding Yukon government of nearly $50k

Michael Kipkirui was arrested Nov. 12 and is facing eight criminal charges

CBC North reverses decision to replace local a.m. newscasts with ‘pan-northern’ model

Staff at CBC Yukon felt ‘shock and disappointment’ over the original plan, made public Nov. 18

WYATT’S WORLD

Wyatt’s World

Reclamation fund being explored in wake of Wolverine Mine receivership

The Yukon government isn’t going to require mines pay more than 100 per cent in security

History Hunter: Travel has been a challenge for Yukon MPs

Getting from Yukon to Ottawa was a trek

Team Yukon finishes 3-6 at 2020 Canadian Mixed Curling Championships

Yukon skip Thomas Scoffin won a sportsmanship award at the event as voted on by the players

Yukoner Jessica Frotten racks up top 10s at World Para Athletics Championships

“I’m really putting everything I’ve got into making that Canadian team for Tokyo”

1898 Yukon gold rush photo featuring Greta Thunberg look-alike sends internet into tailspin

Jokes erupted this week after a 120-year-old photo taken by Eric A. Hegg surfaced from archives

Mikayla Kramer finishes top five at Skate Canada BC/YK Sectional Championships

“I love when there is so much energy in the crowd and I really felt that in this competition”

Whitehorse biathlete Nadia Moser earns IBU World Cup spot on Canadian team

Whitehorse’s Nadia Moser will begin the biathlon season at the IBU World… Continue reading

Whitehorse Glacier Bears host swimmers from Inuvik and B.C. at Ryan Downing Memorial Invitational Swim Meet

“Everyone had a good time – it was amazing. It was a really great meet.”

City news, briefly

Some of the decisions made at the Nov. 12 Whitehorse council meeting

Most Read