Yukon NDP Justic Critic calls for an end to separate confinement in Yukon

On Wednesday, November 18th Yukon NDP Justice Critic Lois Moorcroft asked the following question about the ongoing use of segregation at Whitehorse Correctional Centre:

Lois Moorcroft (MLA for Copperbelt South): Mr. Speaker, the inquest into the death of Ashley Smith, a young woman who died while incarcerated at a federal correctional facility, emphasized what many already knew about the harms of separate confinement.

Ashley Smith developed serious mental health issues and they were exacerbated by the effects of her long-term stays in separate confinement. The inquest made a number of recommendations. Chief among them was a ban on segregating inmates with histories of self-harm or mental health issues. The new federal government has indicated through its mandate letters to ministers that they will be implementing these recommendations.

Mr. Speaker, does the minister agree with the Ashley Smith inquest that the use of separate confinement has harmful effects on inmates who have mental health issues?

Minister of Justice Brad Cathers: Thank you, Mr. Speaker. I would first of all, in responding to the member, note that, on separate confinement, there are policies in place to prevent the use of it for long periods of time. There are some cases when inmates voluntarily choose or ask to be in separate confinement, but, in the Whitehorse Correctional Centre, this is dealt with very carefully and certainly with respect to the rights of all inmates, including those who have mental health issues.

Moorcroft: Mr. Speaker, the practice at Whitehorse Correctional Centre and the policies allow for extended periods in separate confinement.

The Ashley Smith inquest did not limit its recommendations on the use of separate confinement to inmates with mental health issues. Experts agree that the use of long-term separate confinement is harmful to all inmates.

Recommendations stemming from investigations into Ashley Smith’s death also call for a prohibition on placing inmates in long-term segregation beyond 15 days and a limit of 60 days in a calendar year. In 2014, one inmate at Whitehorse Correctional Centre spent 81 days without interruption in separate confinement, far exceeding even the recommended limit of 60 days total in a calendar year.

Mr. Speaker, is it the opinion of the minister that spending 81 days in a row in segregation is not harmful to the physical and mental health of inmates?

Cathers: Thank you, Mr. Speaker.

I should point out to the member that I don’t get directly involved in managing the Correctional Centre. I do leave it to the experts we have in place, and I have confidence in the work that’s done by our staff. I can assure the member that policies are in place to balance the need for protection of an inmate’s rights with the need to ensure that, where there are issues that may affect the safety of other inmates, they are used appropriately. Short-term or separate confinement up to 72 hours is used for inmates with issues that are short term or situational. Long-term separate confinement up to 15 days at Whitehorse Correctional Centre may only be used following short-term confinement when an issue is unlikely to change within a given 15-day period. As well, a physician, psychiatrist or psychologist may request that an inmate be separately confined for medical reasons.

I have confidence in the professionals we have involved. They do recognize the importance of treating all inmates well and, in fact, the wide suite of programming available at Whitehorse Correctional Centre to aid with rehabilitation is a good example of why our correctional system compares very well to other areas within the country.

Moorcroft: Mr. Speaker, the minister is talking about the safety of staff and other inmates at Whitehorse Correctional Centre to justify the high use of separate confinement. The high use of separate confinement speaks more to the fact that this government has not provided Yukon correctional officers with the tools and resources they need to deal with difficult inmates. The harmful effects on prisoners’ physical and mental health puts Corrections staff at risk, and it puts the public at greater risk because rehabilitation is less likely. The use of separate confinement hinders the principles of rehabilitation that are key to a system that would promote restorative justice. I am asking the minister to get directly involved in making good policy. It’s clear there needs to be a change when it comes to the use of separate confinement in Yukon.

Will the minister consider banning outright the use of separate confinement on inmates with mental health issues and FASD?

Cathers: Thank you, Mr. Speaker. Again I note that, in some cases, it may be at the advice of a physician, a psychiatrist or a psychologist that there be separate confinement. I would also point out that the member should be aware from touring the Whitehorse Correctional Centre that the new facility is a dramatically improved facility from what the old jail was like. In fact it is a facility that is designed and focused on rehabilitation.

I would also remind the member that, within the areas of mental health, we’ve acted where the NDP did not act when she was Minister of Justice. This includes the expansion of mental health resources at the Whitehorse General Hospital through the creation of the secure medical unit that was there.

Previously, that type of facility was not there for the protection of patients.

That is something we did. As then Minister of Health and Social Services, I signed off on the Management Board submission requesting that. We recognize there is more work to be done in this area, but I would remind the member that we have significantly raised the bar and raised the standard of rehabilitative programming at the Whitehorse Correctional Centre, including for those with mental health issues, and we will continue to work in this area on continuing to do better, but we are proud of the work that departments have done to date in raising the bar.