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)

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Brendan Hanley gives a COVID-19 update during a press conference in Whitehorse on May 26. The Yukon government announced two new cases of COVID-19 in the territory with a press release on Oct. 19. (Alistair Maitland Photography)
Two new cases of COVID-19 announced in Yukon

Contact tracing is complete and YG says there is no increased risk to the public

Yukon Energy in Whitehorse on April 8. Yukon Energy faced a potential “critical” fuel shortage in January due to an avalanche blocking a shipping route from Skagway to the Yukon, according to an email obtained by the Yukon Party and questioned in the legislature on Oct. 14. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
Yukon Energy faced ‘critical’ fuel shortage last January due to avalanche

An email obtained by the Yukon Party showed energy officials were concerned

Jeanie McLean (formerly Dendys), the minister responsible for the Women’s Directorate speaks during legislative assembly in Whitehorse on Nov. 27, 2017. “Our government is proud to be supporting Yukon’s grassroots organizations and First Nation governments in this critical work,” said McLean of the $175,000 from the Yukon government awarded to four community-based projects aimed at preventing violence against Indigenous women. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
Yukon government gives $175k to projects aimed at preventing violence against Indigenous women

Four projects were supported via the Prevention of Violence against Aboriginal Women Fund

Yukonomist Keith Halliday
Yukonomist: You don’t know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone

When I was a kid, CP Air had a monopoly on flights… Continue reading

asdf
EDITORIAL: Don’t let the City of Whitehorse distract you

A little over two weeks after Whitehorse city council voted to give… Continue reading

Whitehorse City Hall. (Joel Krahn/Yukon News file)
City hall, briefly

A look at decisions made by Whitehorse city council this week

Northwestel has released the proposed prices for its unlimited plans. Unlimited internet in Whitehorse and Carcross could cost users between $160.95 and $249.95 per month depending on their choice of package. (Yukon News file)
Unlimited internet options outlined

Will require CRTC approval before Northwestel makes them available

Legislative assembly on the last day of the fall sitting in Whitehorse. Yukon’s territorial government will sit for 45 days this sitting instead of 30 days to make up for lost time caused by COVID-19 in the spring. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
Legislative assembly sitting extended

Yukon’s territorial government will sit for 45 days this sitting. The extension… Continue reading

asdf
Today’s mailbox: Mad about MAD

Letters to the editor published Oct. 16, 2020

Alkan Air hangar in Whitehorse. Alkan Air has filed its response to a lawsuit over a 2019 plane crash that killed a Vancouver geologist on board, denying that there was any negligence on its part or the pilot’s. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
Alkan Air responds to lawsuit over 2019 crash denying negligence, liability

Airline filed statement of defence Oct. 7 to lawsuit by spouse of geologist killed in crash

Whitehorse city council members voted Oct. 13 to decline an increase to their base salaries that was set to be made on Jan. 1. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
Council declines increased wages for 2021

Members will not have wages adjusted for CPI

A vehicle is seen along Mount Sima Road in Whitehorse on May 12. At its Oct. 13 meeting, Whitehorse city council approved the third reading for two separate bylaws that will allow the land sale and transfer agreements of city-owned land — a 127-square-metre piece next to 75 Ortona Ave. and 1.02 hectares of property behind three lots on Mount Sima Road. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
Whitehorse properties could soon expand

Land sale agreements approved by council

Most Read