Whitehorse jail's Secure Living Unit is like segregation, court rules
Yukon Supreme Court finds jail did not have proper authority to create unit where prisoners are isolated
Yukon corrections officials did not have the authority to create what amounted to a segregation unit at the Whitehorse jail, a judge has found.
Yukon Supreme Court Justice Ron Veale ruled that the Secure Living Unit at the Whitehorse Correctional Centre amounted to separate confinement, but without standard safeguards for inmates.
Veale's decision stems from a complaint by convicted murderer Darryl Sheepway, who was held in the Secure Living Unit at the Whitehorse Correctional Centre (WCC) for more than 20 months, from August 2016 until his sentencing in May 2018.
Sheepway was convicted of second degree murder in January 2018. He was found guilty of killing Christopher Brisson in Whitehorse in 2015.
Sheepway argued that being held in the Secure Living Unit violated his charter rights, and he also challenged the legality of the Secure Living Unit under the Corrections Act.
What is important is the lack of meaningful human contact rather than the label attached- Yukon Supreme Court Chief Justice Ron Veale
Being held there amounted to being kept in separate confinement, Sheepway complained, and Supreme Court Justice Ron Veale agreed.
"The Secure Living Unit is separate confinement with a different label," Veale's decision reads.
The Secure Living Unit at WCC is distinct from the Segregation Unit, but Veale found very little difference between the two, other than the amount of time inmates are allowed out of their cells each day.
"The major difference is that the cells in the Secure Living Unit have a small television screen which are not in the cells in the Segregation Unit," the decision reads.
"What is important is the lack of meaningful human contact rather than the label attached."
Veale ruled that the creation of the Secure Living Unit at WCC must be set in regulation, under the Corrections Act, but that wasn't done. Rather, it was created through WCC policy.
"It is also my view that the creation of the Secure Living Unit in the WCC Policy Manual has resulted in WCC choosing to use confinement in the Secure Living Unit rather than the Separate Confinement regulation, thereby avoiding the procedural safeguards for inmates in s. 21 of the Corrections Regulation," Veale wrote.
Allan Lucier, assistant deputy minister in Yukon's department of Justice, said on Friday that the government was still reviewing the decision but said there was "no indication" that the government would appeal.
Still, Lucier said separate confinement is sometimes necessary.
"We have to be able to ensure that that duty of care to all inmates, which includes their safety, their security, and meeting needs of medical or mental health issues, can be undertaken. It isn't always possible to do all of those things in a general population environment," he said.
'Extremely important' decision, says John Howard Society
Catherine Latimer, executive director of the John Howard Society of Canada, applauded Veale's ruling, saying it could have implications for jails elsewhere in Canada.
"In corrections generally, there's a lot of issues around nomenclature and how things are defined, and not really what the functional reality is of that particular institution," Latimer said.
"I think this is one of the first decisions that really recognizes that. So I think that's extremely important."
Latimer says the John Howard Society agrees that separate confinement is sometimes necessary, in order to protect individual prisoners or the safety of the institution. But she says long periods with little human contact can be psychologically harmful.
"Our perspective is that any form of isolation should really be used with moderation and for relatively short periods of time," she said.
"I really think the important thing is that they have identified this type of isolation in a functional way, not the label that's given to it but whether people are actually being restricted in their cells and deprived of meaningful human contact."
Veale gave the Yukon government nine months to bring its confinement spaces within the regulations of the Act.
Officials must also enact a "fair process and effective review procedure prior to and during the confinement of inmates in the Secure Living Unit," the decision reads.
Veale did not rule on Sheepway's Charter rights.
Written by Paul Tukker, with files from Claudiane Samson/Radio-Canada