Yukon government under attack over transition home for inmates

Critics says it's unacceptable that Yukon's only halfway house has been moved into the Whitehorse jail.

Critics says it's unacceptable that the territory's only halfway house has been moved into the Whitehorse jail

Critics say the Whitehorse jail is the wrong place to set up a transition home for inmates. (Cheryl Kawaja/CBC)

The Yukon government's decision to put a home for transitioning territorial and federal inmates into the Whitehorse Correctional Centre is under attack from several directions.

The home is in a separate unit within the jail and operated by the John Howard Society's regional unit in B.C.'s Lower Mainland.

The eight residents made the move from the Salvation Army's old Adult Residential Centre near the Whitehorse airport to the jail last week, said NDP opposition critic MLA Liz Hanson.

According to the Yukon government, the residents include those on conditional sentences, mandatory supervision and temporary absences and do not require high security custodial care.

Hanson said she asked government officials how they'll know if the new location in the jail is suitable for transitioning inmates.

But she says the government told her it has no plan.

"I don't know how they're going to know whether or not it works to house a halfway house in a jail, behind barbed wire," said Hanson.

"Saying the words in one sentence, makes me think that's just illogical," she said.

NDP opposition justice critic MLA Liz Hanson says a halfway house behind barbed wire does not make sense. (Claudiane Samson/Radio-Canada)

Hanson said she also asked government officials if this is done elsewhere in Canada. She said she was told it is not, but it's an example of Yukon being innovative.

Defence lawyers and others in the Yukon legal community are also speaking out about the move.

A letter signed by 11 people including members of the Yukon Law Society lays out four main criticisms of the new facility.

The letter says First Nations were not consulted, there's no provision for women, and that it may negatively affect conditions for current inmates at the jail, it also says that a community residential facility should not be in a prison.

The letter says that former prisoners in the transition home are most likely to see the unit as a "slightly nicer" part of the jail and another form of incarceration.

"For this population, prisons represent physical coercion, including traumatic memories of humiliation through strip-searching, violence, solitary confinement and overall degradation," the letter reads.

A Vancouver based advocacy organization, the Pivot Legal Society, is also calling for the Yukon government to move the facility out of the jail.

The Adult Residential Centre closed at the end of April and eight residents were moved to its replacement in the Whitehorse Correctional Centre. (Wayne Vallevand/CBC)

It quotes Yukon lawyer and Tr'ondëk Hwëch'in citizen Benjamin Bruce Warnsby who says he's gravely concerned the Yukon has lost a community-based program that helped his clients with supervision.

"As a lawyer, I now wonder if it is reasonable to advise my client to accept conditions that amount to a jail cell," he said.

'Utilizing the resources that are available'

Mark Miller, the chief executive officer for the John Howard Society in B.C.'s Lower Mainland, said he's confident the society can successfully transition Yukon inmates from incarceration to freedom.

The society has more than 25 years experience operating similar residential facilities in B.C., Miller said, including working with Indigenous clients. He said it also uses peer counselling that allows the clients to talk with people who have been in their situations in the past.

As for the location at the jail, he said it's the programming that's important.

"It is something that some people may have a difficult time picturing, but it's really about utilizing the resources that are available and putting them to use in the best possible way to help individuals," Miller said.

Miller said the unit at the jail has its own entrance.

In an email to CBC, a territorial government spokesperson says that there is enough room to accommodate the new program without affecting the rest of the jail.

It says the government learned in December that that the Salvation Army was closing the Adult Residential Centre by the end of April.

Its priority was maintaining the current services for men, but will look at adding a program for women in the future, the government says.

It's also in talks with the Council of Yukon First Nations and Kwanlin Dün First Nation and has contacted the Ta'an Kwäch'än Council, it says.



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