Two former inmates of the Whitehorse Correctional Centre (WCC) have filed a class action on behalf of jail population because of mental health issues including an attempted suicide following prolonged stays in segregation units.
In a statement of claim filed on Oct.29, Ray Hartling, 49, and Mark Lewis Lange, whose age is not stated and is from Na-Cho Nyäk Dun First Nation, allege the WCC’s overuse of what was once known as its secure living unit (SLU), as well as the Segregation (SEG) unit, breached their Charter rights to life, liberty and security as well as protection from cruel unusual punishment.
The action is seeking $10,000 for every person who’s spent time in the units since Oct. 20, 2014, and presents five different classes of plaintiffs, including if an inmate had underlying mental health issues or if they were incarcerated in the SLU for at least 15 days.
The claimants lawyer, Vincent Larochelle, told APTN News his clients want to see the jail held accountable.
“They’re not after vast sums of money. More importantly for both of them, I can assure you, it’s about no one ever having to go through what they went through ever again.”
The action states Hartling and Lange were held in the SLU unit from Oct.20, 2014 to Oct.20, 2020, as well as occasionally being held in the SEG unit. Larochelle said both units were essentially what is commonly known as segregation units.
The lawsuit asserts that inmates in the segregated units were locked in their cells for up to 23 hours a day and had little to no contact with other people.
The action claims the WCC was fully aware both men suffer from several underlying mental health issues but placed them in segregation units which “rendered them especially susceptible to the negative effects of isolation.”
According to the action, extended time spent in the units caused Hartling to suffer a psychological breakdown where he covered his cell with feces. At one point, he also tried to commit suicide with a pair of nail clippers.
Other allegations in the action include that inmates in SLU have little access to educational, cultural, therapeutic and spiritual programming; no access to outdoors; that some people serving an intermittent sentence were placed in the SLU every weekend when they were incarcerated at the WCC; and that inmates were routinely held in the SEG without any justification nor authority for significant periods of time.
“They’ve been using separate confinement quite aggressively. There’s a lack of procedural fairness, of procedural mechanisms, in the way in which they use that,” Larochelle said.
He said when people who already suffer from mental health conditions are put in segregation for long periods of time with usually nothing but a TV for entertainment, they often deteriorate mentally and become traumatized by their experience.
As a result of his time spent in segregation units, the action claims Hartling has been left “permanently scarred” and “suffers from PTSD and depression.”
“There’s a scientific consensus, all psychiatrists will tell you, isolation creates and expatriates any mental health condition,” his lawyer said.
“It’s said to cause physical harm because people will commit suicide or self-harm when they spend too much time in isolation. In fact, one of my clients did resort to self-harm. You go nuts, that’s the short of it.”
Larochelle said his clients witnessed countless other inmates “shuffled” through the segregation units as well, and thinks it’s not unfathomable that 200 to 300 people may be included in the lawsuit.
He’s also received several calls from people seeking information about the action and telling him their own experiences in the units.
Larochelle is currently waiting on documents from the government to verify how many people spent time in the units during the action’s timeframe.
He also questions why the $75 million dollar multi-level facility, which he estimates costs around $10 million dollars a year to operate, has no outdoors courtyard and uses segregation as an administrative penalization tool when other less severe actions like therapy and counselling would better serve inmates at a fraction of the price.
“That doesn’t cost a million dollars a year,” he said.
“They have so much resources, so much money at their disposal. What my clients believe, and what I believe with them, is with a little bit of imagination and creativity, they could find a different way to deal with inmates.”
Larochelle said Indigenous people are overrepresented at the WCC, and estimates 70 to 80 per cent of the WCC’s inmate population is Indigenous.
He believes simply having an Indigenous background can cause inmates to be categorized as being likely to reoffend.
He said when inmates go to jail, risk assessments are performed to determine how violent they are, and factors like growing up with dysfunctional relationships, not having a job and not having stable housing are used.
“So immediately, when they offend, and you apply those tools on them because of the heavy reliance on those types of static factors, they’ll churn out a high risk to reoffend, and (these assessments) have been criticized as being culturally biased for that reason.”
“What we hope to clarify through this lawsuit is that (WCC) is using tools that are culturally biased. Certainly Canada wide, it’s an issue for First Nations people.”
Larochelle said overall, he and his clients are calling on systemic change within the corrections system.
“We have a high security prison for people who just usually need to sober up and deal with their addiction issues. It’s difficult to do that and acquire those skills when you’re surrounded by cement. Jails should emulate the life we want people to live, and we don’t do that right now. If we don’t change how jails look like, there’s nothing we can do.”
The Yukon government, WCC, attorney general of the Yukon, the WCC’s assistant deputy superintendent and superintendent and the Yukon government’s director of corrections are listed as defendants.
None of the parties have filed a statement of defence.