Canadian prisons overloaded with mentally ill
Saturday, Feb. 26 2005
Canadian Press

OTTAWA — An inept justice system is putting more mentally ill people in federal prisons, where there is little treatment available for them, says a newly released report.

Corrections Canada must spend more on doctors and facilities to treat as many as 1,500 prisoners who need urgent help each day, the internal study concludes.

"The criminal justice system continues to be used to catch those who fall through the gaps in Canada's social safety net," says the Corrections Canada report, obtained under the Access to Information Act.

"As a result, people with mental illnesses are taken into a system which was not designed to accommodate them and which is ill-suited to respond to their needs."

Blaming the "ineptitude and insensitivity of the justice system," the report notes that even as the absolute number of federal prisoners drops, the proportion of mentally ill prisoners is rising.

Research suggests about 11 per cent of newly arriving prisoners had a mental disorder in 2004, compared with about seven per cent in 1997. But Corrections Canada does no formal clinical assessment when it receives new prisoners who may have mental health problems, such as schizophrenia or personality disorders.

The report, prepared last summer for the department's executive committee, says that on any given day, 2,154 offenders are suffering from an anxiety disorder; 375 are suffering from organic brain problems, such as fetal alcohol syndrome; and 7,125 are suffering from an antisocial personality disorder. Many struggle with more than one problem.

There are about 12,500 prisoners in the federal system's 53 institutions.

The department runs five mental health centres dating from the 1970s, with beds for only about 695 offenders, or 5.5 per cent of the total population.

Not only are the centres unable to keep up with the flood of mental health patients, many of the existing beds are occupied by prisoners with other problems, such as drug addictions.

The internal report was prompted in part by a complaint from the Kingston, Ont., branch of the John Howard Society to the Canadian Human Rights Commission about the local mental health facility, alleged to be little more than a secure holding tank.

"It's both a prison and a psychiatric facility, and those two notions don't always go well together," said Graham Stewart, executive-director of the national John Howard Society.

"Patients got the worst of both worlds.... These facilities should be seen as mental health facilities first."

Stewart and others say prisons are simply re-institutionalizing mental health patients who were emptied from psychiatric facilities in the cost-cutting 1990s.

"Particularly with the depopulation of provincial mental health facilities, this has led to a larger number of people with mental health problems being in the general population of the prison system,' he said from Kingston.

"People have in fact migrated from one system to another."

One of the authors of the Corrections Canada report acknowledged the widespread problems, and said the department is working on a proposal by the fall that would require more money, staff and treatment facilities.

"We need to have something that starts from the intake, the assessment, even to the community release," said Dr. Francoise Bouchard, director-general of health services.

Mentally ill prisoners are often vulnerable and easily abused, she said, and are sometimes put into segregation or isolation solely for their protection, even though it may not an appropriate treatment. They also tend to serve more of their time before release.

The study notes that mentally ill prisoners are less likely than others to commit crimes again on release, but are more likely to violate the terms of their parole, often because of mental confusion.

"If you don't know what time it is, you have trouble keeping track of those things, then you'll be consistently missing your (parole) appointments," said Stewart.

In a unique experiment, Ontario created a so-called mental health court in Toronto in 1998. The court was designed "to put the mentally disordered accused back into the hands of the mental health system where he or she belongs and to reduce, as much as possible, their criminalization," its founder, Justice Richard D. Schneider, wrote at the time.

Stewart and Bouchard both welcome the innovation but said it's only part of a larger puzzle that must include better social services made available to the mentally ill in communities.