Column: Prison no place for mentally ill

Today’s column in The StarPhoenix

Of the 15,400 people in federal prisons last year, 610 of them were women. This number has grown about 40 per cent in the last five years and the number of aboriginal women in prison has increased by 80 per cent during the last decade.

These are just some of more interesting numbers that the federal Correctional Investigator Howard Sapers makes in this 2012 annual report. Perhaps the most shocking stories are about how women with mental health are treated while in prison.

A little more than a third of women in prison have been found to have mental health issues. The report says prisoners diagnosed with a mental illness are typically afflicted by more than one disorder and often a substance abuse problem on top of that. These are people who need a lot of mental health assistance.

At conferences during the years I have heard speakers say that some function at a childlike level. Not only do they have no concept of their crimes, but they can’t function at even a basic level in society. For their inability to survive in society, we toss them in prison.

Many imprisoned women have behavioural problems and according to Corrections Canada’s inspector, they are being treated as security problems rather than humans struggling with mental health issues.

The report lays out offenders who hurt themselves typically are isolated, have pepper spray used against them and are moved to more secure parts of the prison. In the case of our own regional psychiatric facility, Corrections Canada put them into Canada’s first padded jail cell when what they really need is treatment.

It is hard not to make a connection between poor mental health care in prison and the rate of suicide in prisons. The report states that in the last five years, the amount of self harm – including suicide attempts – have more than doubled. Women offenders have a very high proportion of attempted suicides.

The report found that when a person tried to commit suicide, that person was punished rather than given needed help. This, of course, creates more suicide attempts, which brings about even more sanctions. It’s a ridiculous cycle.

After reading the report, one is left with the conclusion that mental health issues in prison are still treated as behavioural issues, rather than illnesses. A prisoner who breaks his or her leg or develops cancer is treated. If the prisoner is schizophrenic and suffers from depression, it is a behaviour issue and punishment is handed out.

The numbers show that the system is failing women with mental health issues and we are using prisons as the institution of last resort. One could draw a comparison to the insane asylums of years gone by where many of those who had mental health problems were locked up and forgotten.

Outside of the ethical issues of why we continue to treat people this way, there is another reason to get this fixed now. Those struggling inside of the jail will eventually get out and move back into our communities. We want them to get the best treatment they can inside of prisons so that can reintegrate back into society when they are released.

That doesn’t always happen. Protocols are ignored, medication isn’t released with the offender and if that person had psychiatric help inside the prison, he or she is released with no treatment plan. When the warrants expire, all help (if any was received) is terminated. It’s a recipe for failure.

We forget that failing to help offenders hurts us all.

Canadians don’t pay a lot of attention toward corrections at either the federal or provincial level, but we should. An 80 per cent increase in the numbers of aboriginal women entering our prisons says that something has gone wrong in the last decade. The fact that 69 per cent of the women entering our federal correctional system have mental health problems says that we are failing them.

The Harper government loves to talk about being tough on crime. I am not going to take them seriously until they start improving the conditions of those they put behind bars. Prison should be a place where we start to rehabilitate those who are behind bars, not release them in worse shape than they entered.

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