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Correctional Service of Canada

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.

© Copyright (c) The StarPhoenix

“What is it that the correctional service actually corrects? In my view very little…and…the justice system is completely criminal and it should be studied…”

Dr. Gabor Mate on addictions & corrections

According to CSC, 80% of offenders are substance abusers.

B.C. Prisoner Group Protesting Non-Christian Chaplain Layoffs

This is a decision by CSC that I just don’t understand

A prisoners’ rights group in B.C. is suing the federal government for allegedly violating the constitutional rights of non-Christian inmates by cancelling the contracts of 18 non-Christian chaplains at federal prisons.

Two Buddhists, two Wiccans, two Muslims, a Sikh and a Jewish believer say Corrections Canada is denying them reasonable access to religion and spirituality.

In October, the agency confirmed its plans to lay off 49 part-time chaplains — 31 of whom are Christians — who provided religious counsel to a variety of faiths. The layoffs, expected to take effect at the end of March, will leave British Columbia without a non-Christian chaplain.

The part-time chaplains are to be replaced with a mix of volunteers and the CSC’s 71 full-time Christian chaplains and two full-time Muslim chaplains.

“It is a pretty clear cut case on the basis of religion,” said D.J. Larkin, a staff lawyer with West Coast Prison Justice Society, which is representing eight current and former inmates in the case.

“What’s happening right now is there are Christian-based chaplains in B.C. There are no minority-based chaplains in B.C.”

Larkin says she has documented a number of cases where prisoners have requested religious counselling but have been unable to attain it.

Cantor Michael Zoosman was a part-time Jewish prison chaplain in B.C. who now works in Washington D.C.

He says religion can help people stay out of prison — saving money and helping them reintegrate into society.

“There’s a real opportunity for rehabilitation through spiritual connectedness that only chaplains can achieve,” Zoosman said.

“Minorities deserve the same access to that rehabilitation as majorities.”

With their lawsuit, the eight current and former inmates are asking that the Correctional Service of Canada reinstate and continue the contracts of the non-Christian chaplains in British Columbia.

The CSC wouldn’t comment on the lawsuit, but released a statement saying it is committed to respecting religious freedom.

The agency “will also continue to engage the voluntary support of our community partners to deliver chaplaincy services to offenders,” the statement read.

I agree with the prisoners on this.  Laying off chaplains (who do a really important job in Corrections no matter what their faith background is) is a weird move but eliminating all of the part time positions that minister to minorities is even more mind boggling until you step back and realize that Vic Toews is the minister in charge. 

I know a lot of offenders who have turned their lives around in jail and almost all of them have talked of their work with a chaplain.  Cutting chaplaincy is a bizarre decision (they get paid like crap) but doing it this way is even worse.  Perhaps Canada’s Office of Religious Freedom could take a look inside our borders on it’s way to protect religious freedom outside of our borders.

Column: Double Bunking Doesn’t Work

This week’s column in The StarPhoenix

Last week the Internet news site iPolitics reported that Iwan Zinger, the executive director of the Office of Correctional Investigations, raised a series of concerns about the double bunking of federal offenders in federal penitentiaries.

Since June 2010, inmates being held in segregation in Manitoba’s Stoney Mountain Penitentiary have been double bunked despite being confined to their cells for 23 hours a day.

In a related story, iPolitics reported that in Prince Albert inmates are being double bunked in a prison cell that is less than five-square metres.

It’s been a long-standing practice with Correctional Services to avoid double bunking. Zinger pointed out in a memo he wrote to correctional officials that Canada has long endorsed the United National Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners, which calls for one inmate per prison cell.

Correctional Service responded to the letter with concern, but double bunking has been on the increase for the last couple of years anyway. As far back as August 2010, CSC has posted policy notes on its website that loosen the rules for double bunking.

For the foreseeable future, however, the policy seems to be here to stay. There is an increasing number of inmates being double bunked in cells designed for a single person. Public Safety Minister Vic Toews has indicated he is content with double bunking in spite of the 1,700 new cells being added to the system.

Western Canada sees the highest rate of double bunking, at about one in five inmates. As can be expected, the increased crowding leads to other problems.

In prison, it leads to a higher rate of violence and public-health problems such as the spread of infectious diseases. It also makes rehabilitation more difficult as we are housing inmates in unsafe prisons that are not designed to hold that many people.

While it may be physically possible to hold a higher number of prisoners they eventually get released, and that’s when the real problems start.

The American practice of building supermax prisons generated a lot of attention when they were opened. They were super secure for the system’s most dangerous criminals. As the reinvention of places like Alcatraz, they held prisoners such as the notorious mob boss John Gotti.

They did an amazing job of segregating inmates and stopping violence. Their failure was that some who were housed there were not given life sentences and like most offenders in Canada, they were eventually released. Authorities found that many were worse off when they were released, however, than when they were convicted.

I am all in favour of tougher prison sentences for some crimes. It takes a long time to change behaviours and be taught the new skills that can break the crime cycle. It’s staff intensive and costs money but at the same time not doing it costs a lot more in both crime and more incarceration.

Many who return to California’s famous San Quentin are arrested before they have the chance to spend the $100 bill that they are given when they are released. Released in the morning and returned later that day. Each of those crimes has a victim and of course the cost of even more incarceration. It’s in all of our best interests to get this right.

That isn’t happening now. The Conservatives have totally forgotten the “corrections” part of their crime bill in a haste of locking everyone up. While they may be correct that we need longer sentences and have more people incarcerated, locking people up without the cells to safely house them and the space to turn their lives around is a recipe for more crime and even longer sentences.

Studies have shown that for most criminals, prison isn’t a deterrent. The evidence would suggest that in most western countries, it’s not the jail time that stops people from committing crimes – most are very aware of the consequences before they do the crime.

Many can’t get by in the world without breaking the law and that is why they do it. Some are violent people who must be locked up for a long time, but most need to be taught the skills to live without crime. Treating our prisons as warehouses for criminals doesn’t do that.

While it may feel good to be tough on crime, we must break the crime cycle and that doesn’t happen in over-crowded and violent prisons.

It’s hard to care for criminals but for many, prison must be where they can change their lives. Warehousing them in small cells isn’t going to accomplish that. Best practices have to win out over Conservative ideology and politics.

© Copyright (c) The StarPhoenix

Off to Prison

I posted a little bit about the day over at the Centre’s weblog but I thought I would post some more thoughts here.

Each summer the Centre puts on a big barbecue at Riverbend Institution.  Last year I was asked to go along and four of us headed up north to Prince Albert to cook and meet some of the guys who are at Riverbend.  For many of the guys who are there, they are on their way out of the federal prison system and Riverbend is one of their last stops until they get to a federal half way house.  In addition to this, some guys don’t do that great in a halfway house and are sent back and we have a chance to catch up with them.

Last year I took some photos.  They were cool with it as I wasn’t taking photos of the guys there, just us setting up.  Below is a photo of the four of us smoking out all of Saskatchewan Penitentiary.
Salvation Army BBQ at Riverbend Institution
This year they had us in a different location and there were always guys around helping so I never took any photos out of respect for the rules and the guys there (and let’s be honest, I was in the middle of a federal prison and I wanted to get out at the end of the night) but we had a lot of fun and yes there was  a lot of smoke this year as well.

According to our two host chaplains, we had 130 guys come to the barbecue.  About 20 of them were early enough to help us set up and over 50 of them swarmed around and helped clean up.  While it was a lot of work to put on, I was told to take a seat in one of the adirondack chairs while clean up was going on.

While last year was a lot of fun, this year I was a little more comfortable with the guys which made it a more enjoyable event for me personally.  Several of the guys came up and told me how much they appreciated the chaplaincy of the Major and several guys passed on greetings to the staff back at the Centre and even greetings for Wendy and Oliver.  While they may be frustrated at themselves, their Parole Officers, and the system, they still like us and it is good to hear stories of them getting back on track.

It was a nice trip and I look forward to coming back next year.