The Yukon Human Rights Commission and the territorial government have reached an agreement in response to complaints from four prisoners over the use of solitary confinement for inmates who have a mental illness, as well as those who are Indigenous.
Jessica Lott Thompson, director of the Yukon Human Rights Commission, said in an interview on Wednesday that the agreement reached does not end the use of segregation in the territory. The commission’s position is that segregation is harmful to prisoners and should be abolished.
However, Ms. Lott Thompson said it does provide significant policy improvements. The territorial government has agreed to create a forensic mental-health unit at the Whitehorse Correctional Centre and establish a panel that will help identify alternatives to segregation.
“There’s lots of good things to build on in this agreement,” she said.
The four human-rights complaints were filed in 2014 and consolidated into one group. Two of the complaints were from men and two from women. All were over the use of solitary at Whitehorse Correctional, as well as the adequacy of mental-health services. The complainants were not identified in the agreement.
Allan Lucier, assistant deputy minister of community justice and public safety with the Government of Yukon, said in an interview he believed the agreement made “great strides” on the issue of segregation, but acknowledged it did not meet “every concern.”
“I’m fully aware that there are many voices in Canada that seek the absolute abolition of segregation. The absolute abolishment of segregation would require a much more thorough review of corrections than these complaints opened the door to, or than this settlement attempts to resolve,” he said.
A broader review of the Whitehorse Correctional Centre is expected to be released next month.
A B.C. Supreme Court judge earlier this year struck down laws that permit prolonged and indefinite solitary confinement in federal prisons. The case was brought by the B.C. Civil Liberties Association and the John Howard Society of Canada. The federal government has appealed.
The Yukon agreement also promises increased documentation and record-keeping of mental-health care practices in prison, as well as additional human-rights training for staff. It said Whitehorse Correctional would also consider further incorporating Indigenous social history into its policies and practices.
Last year, the Crown dropped criminal charges of assault with a weapon against a Yukon man with mental illness who had languished in prison for more than 2,000 days – much of it in solitary confinement. The inmate, Michael Nehass, was also Indigenous.
Mr. Nehass was not among the four complainants. His lawyer, Anik Morrow, in an interview described the agreement as a “Band-Aid.” She said what she observed from Mr. Nehass’s case was that Yukon is severely lacking in mental-health resources, both inside and outside prison.
“I understand the glass was empty. Now, I would say it’s somewhat less than completely empty,” she said.
Ms. Morrow said the commission did make some progress and negotiations with the government must have been difficult. However, she said the agreement was not cause for celebration.
Jennifer Metcalfe, executive director of Prisoners’ Legal Services in British Columbia, called the agreement “a good first step.”
“Opening a forensic unit for prisoners with mental disabilities is a really good alternative to solitary confinement. That’s the direction we need to be taking, providing alternatives to the use of solitary,” she said in an interview.