09/21/2017 04:29 EDT | Updated 09/22/2017 06:46 EDT

Yukon justice minister directs review of jail where mentally ill man segregated

WHITEHORSE — Yukon's justice minister plans to direct an independent review of how the Whitehorse Correctional Centre handles mentally ill inmates following a high-profile criminal case alleging excessive use of segregation.

Tracy-Anne McPhee's decision follows the conclusion of Michael Nehass's criminal case, which raised concerns about his treatment at the jail.

"I'm very keen to make sure we determine exactly what happened in this case," McPhee said.

"The vast majority of inmates present (with mental health issues), and, as a result, we need to make sure that we are properly providing services for them."

McPhee said officials are working on finding someone with the necessary expertise to conduct a review.

There are also concerns that the jail is not serving the needs of First Nations inmates.

Nehass, 33, is a member of the Tahltan Nation and has been diagnosed with schizophrenia.

McPhee said there's an effort to develop more culturally relevant programming, including incorporating traditional food, cultural workshops, language lessons and a newly established healing room.

Nehass was charged in 2011 with assault with a weapon and forcible confinement, among other charges, related to the assault of a woman at knife point in Watson Lake.

While he was found guilty of many of the charges in May 2015, he was declared unfit for trial in January 2017.

Nehass's lawyer, Anik Morrow, said his client spent 22 to 23 hours a day in a cell in the segregation unit. 

When outside, he was kept in handcuffs, belly chains and shackles, even while he showered, Morrow said.

In January 2014, guards in riot gear held Nehass naked and shackled to the floor of his cell for a court appearance by video.

Yukon Supreme Court Justice Scott Brooker noted Nehass's time in segregation caused his mental health to deteriorate.

Nehass's nearly six-year legal saga concluded earlier this month, when the Crown stayed criminal charges.

Morrow said that amounted to a gag order on many of the issues in the case.

He said it also left Nehass stranded in Ontario, where he had been sent via court order to be assessed at a mental health facility in Whitby. A variation of the order meant he would be transferred to a mental health centre in Kamloops, B.C.

The Yukon NDP has been calling for a public inquiry into Nehass's case and an independent audit into the use of segregation at the correctional centre. 

NDP Leader Liz Hanson said she wants an open and frank public discussion, not only about Nehass's case, but about the systemic issues involved.

"It just begs this government, in the spirit of reconciliation, let's revisit what's going on at WCC," Hanson said.

She noted the facility, which opened in 2012 at a cost of more than $70 million, has not met the goals of a community jail and is akin to a maximum security prison.

Roger Ellis, who is currently on the jail's Elders Advisory Group, has also raised issues about the needs of mentally ill inmates and said several elders who have spoken out over the years have yet to receive a response.

While Nehass was incarcerated since December 2011, he has never been sentenced for the alleged crimes. (Whitehorse Star)