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Advocates welcome 'long overdue' review of Yukon corrections system

A review of the Whitehorse Correctional Centre and the services it provides for mental illness is being welcomed by advocates in Yukon. The Human Rights Commission and Council of Yukon First Nations say change is needed.

Justice minister's promised review 'encouraging', says chair of Human Rights Commission

Yukon Human Rights Commission director Jessica Lott Thomson and chair Russ Knutson think a review is 'long overdue'. The commission says it will supply the territorial government with a list of people deemed qualified to conduct the review. (Philippe Morin/CBC)

A review of the Whitehorse jail is being welcomed by advocates in Yukon — even though they have questions about its scope and independence. 

Yukon justice minister Tracy-Anne McPhee announced Tuesday that she would order an inspection of the Whitehorse Correctional Centre (WCC), and a review of its programming, in light of concerns about Michael Nehass's experience there as an inmate with mental illness. 

The Yukon Human Rights Commission and Council of Yukon First Nations (CYFN) both say change is needed, when it comes to how the corrections system deals with mental illness.

CYFN Grand Chief Peter Johnston says his organization has been calling for more services dealing with mental health. 

Council of Yukon First Nations Grand Chief Peter Johnston says more support for mental health is needed within Yukon's correctional system. (Claudiane Samson/Radio-Canada)

"It's become more of a topic in the news as of late, in regards of how people are being dealt with. I think having more services that are reflective of mental health, and more support out there for individuals, is definitely going to help," he said. 

Johnston also expressed support for the promised inspection and review of WCC.

"CYFN is definitely supportive of positive movements that are happening in the correctional system. We need to be there to encourage that, and support the government in moving ahead." 

Yukon Human Rights Commission will suggest names 

McPhee has promised to appoint an independent third-party investigator to conduct the review. 

The Yukon Human Rights Commission says it will supply the territorial government with a list of people deemed qualified to do the job. 

"Any effort to look into, and think more deeply about, issues at Whitehorse Correctional Centre is something we should all welcome," said Jessica Lott Thompson, the Commission's director.

One of the most controversial aspects of Michael Nehass's case was his prolonged time in segregation at WCC. Lott Thompson says the Human Rights Commission has been campaigning for years for alternatives to segregation and solitary confinement at WCC. 

One of the most controversial aspects of Michael Nehass's case was his prolonged time in segregation at the Whitehorse Correctional Centre. (Paul Tukker/CBC)

But Lott Thompson also has questions about the review.

"We've heard it described as an 'investigation' under the Corrections Act, which would be quite a different thing than a public inquiry. It makes a big difference in whether we can call that something that is truly independent," she said. 

Russ Knutson, chair of the Human Rights Commission, agrees.

He says he's "cautiously optimistic" about the review, which he says could constitute a "long overdue" reassessment of the territory's intersection of justice and mental health. 

"It's encouraging. There has been so much to be discouraged about in the past, because a lot of the issues we're hearing about now have been going on for some time," he said.

In 2015 a report from the auditor general of Canada criticised Yukon's correctional system, saying it could do better at rehabilitating inmates, and increasing their chances of successful re-integration into society.

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