The Hill: Mental illness behind bars

Our prisons are filling up with inmates with mental illness problems.

The situation is going from bad to worse.

According to a 2012 report by the United Nations Committee against Torture, Canada had “inadequate infrastructure of detention facilities to deal with the rising and complex needs of prisoners,” especially those with mental illness.

The report from the esteemed international body said Canada had to stop using prisons to house the mentally ill.

Prisoners are still being locked up in converted shower stalls, sleeping on mattresses tossed on cement floors. Inmates are being crowded two and three to a cell.
Some prisoners shout themselves to madness while others commit suicide.

Recent studies show one-third of prisoners begin their jail term with some sort of mental health condition.

The Correctional Service of Canada produced figures in 2009 that showed 13 per cent of men and 29 per cent of women entering the prison system identified themselves as having mental health problems. Why were they not treated immediately? By law, Canadian courts and prison officials can’t force prisoners to submit to medical treatment if they refuse. Many prisoners reject the help they need.

Even judges have trouble. Some have ordered the accused appearing before them undergo mental health assessments, only to see their rulings overturned on appeal. 

So prisoners go in needing medical treatment. They don’t get it, and later they come out into society in no better shape than they went in, and often in worse shape.
However, there has been a real sign recently that some politicians are prepared to do something about mental health issues in Canadian prisons.

It came as a surprise. Liberal senators Art Eggleton and Claudette Tardif of Alberta put together an Open Senate committee to investigate the mental illness problem in Canadian prisons. They included Conservative and Independent senators, and invited prison experts to speak freely about mental illness in prisons. Experts who took part included John Howard Society executive director Catherine Latimer, the Correctional Investigator of Canada Howard Sapers, the aboriginal criminal lawyer and university law professor Michelle Mann-Rempel, and the chairman of Psychiatry at the Ontario Medical Association Dr. Gary Chaimowitz.

The 200 chairs in the committee room were filled to capacity with invited guests, everybody from psychiatric nurses and doctors to law professors and experts in prison issues and mental illness.

The meeting had none of the nasty, partisan political exchanges old-time Senate committees used to have.

Everybody was on the same side, just trying to figure out what has happened to our prisons and how it can be fixed. It was the sort of impartial Senate committee Prime Minister Justin Trudeau promised us last fall.

The whole thing was so successful that the invited quests kept applauding the panel as if they were being treated to a heroic performance. In fact, it was that — every bit of it compared to what we’ve had from Senate committees in the past.

Conservative Senator Bob Runciman said in defence of inmates that most of the violence in our prisons does not come from mentally ill prisoners. He spoke directly to his audience, including several dozen women present who work in prisons or who have served time. They applauded him.

Chaimowitz, the forensic psychiatrist, said the real problem is that professionals like him “don’t have the legal tools to force treatment on the mentally ill” in prison.

He said he came to Canada from South Africa 30 years ago and loves the country and its values. However, Chaimowitz  does not like the extensive Canadian use of solitary confinement that he has seen. The first time he visited segregated sections of our prisons he said he was “horrified at the scene.”

“I found psychotic men waiting, screaming, banging, undressed, some wallowing in their personal excrement in hard, dank rooms,” he said. 

Some cells were the size of the hotel bed he had slept in the previous night in Ottawa.

“Yet these conditions such as psychosis are treatable,” he said.

Eggleton promised the committee would meet again in the fall to discuss the same issue once again and senators from all parties would again be invited as well as members of the public.

The overall conclusion among many spectators and participants was that if the Senate can keep on doing this sort of work, a great many more people may no longer be saying the Senate has outlived its usefulness and should be abolished.

Richard Cleroux is a freelance reporter and columnist on Parliament Hill. His e-mail address is [email protected]

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