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Prisons failing mentally ill, especially women, federal ombudsman says

Ivan Zinger, Correctional Investigator of Canada, holds a press conference at the National Press Theatre in Ottawa on Tuesday, Oct. 31, 2017. Canada's prison service must find alternatives to locking up inmates, especially women, with serious mental illness, says the federal correctional ombudsman. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick
October 31, 2017 - 1:49 PM

OTTAWA - Canada's prison service must find alternatives to locking up inmates, especially women, with serious mental illness, says the federal correctional ombudsman.

The Correctional Service of Canada needs to create more agreements with community providers that would allow for the transfer and placement of offenders struggling with severe mental issues in outside psychiatric facilities, correctional investigator Ivan Zinger said Tuesday.

Women with mental health problems are more likely than other prisoners to be placed in maximum security — cells where cramped living conditions can heighten tension, frustration and conflicts, Zinger said in releasing his annual report.

Overall, Zinger painted a grim portrait of federal prison life, citing high rates of mental illness, self-injury and premature death as well as the long-standing over-representation of Indigenous people.

Currently, there is no standalone treatment facility for federal female inmates. As an emergency measure, an acutely mentally ill woman can be transferred to an all-male treatment centre where she is kept separately in conditions that are far from therapeutic, Zinger said.

The practice is "completely unacceptable" and violates international human rights standards, he told a news conference.

Zinger recommended the prison service fund beds in community facilities to accommodate up to 12 federally sentenced women requiring intensive mental health care.

"The price of not doing so may ultimately be more tragic and preventable deaths in custody and costly civil settlements in wrongful death cases," the annual report says.

Zinger highlights other problematic practices, such as the use of physical restraints, suicide watches and segregation to manage men and women in serious psychological distress.

While admissions and lengths of stay in segregation have dropped significantly in recent years, many such units for separating inmates from the general population lack proper ventilation, windows and natural light, he said. Segregation yards are often little more than bare concrete pens topped with razor wire.

Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale welcomed the report and said concrete steps — specifically for women offenders with mental health issues and Indigenous offenders — were being taken, with tens of millions of dollars in new spending. In addition, proposed legislation would restrict the use of segregation.

"You can't, unfortunately, turn this ship on a dime," Goodale said. "But we've made more progress in the last two years than the previous government accomplished in a decade."

The correctional investigator also reported complaints from inmates about meal portions, quality and selection, with the daily cost for food per prisoner set at just $5.41. "In some institutions, food has become part of the underground economy, where it is bought, bartered or sold for other items," Zinger said.

Though the causes of a deadly riot at Saskatchewan Penitentiary last December are still being investigated, concerns about food contributed to tensions at that prison, he added.

Other findings from Zinger:

— The "substandard and unsafe" vehicles used to transport offenders are essentially modified family minivans in which prisoners ride shackled without seatbelts;

— Opportunities for prisoners to acquire apprenticeship hours towards a trade certificate are "too few and too far between."

In addition, Zinger called on the Correctional Service to bring back its safe tattooing program.

Tattooing behind bars often involves sharing and reusing dirty homemade equipment, linked to higher rates of hepatitis C and HIV among inmates, Zinger's report says. There is often no safe means of disposing of used needles.

In 2005, the prison service began a pilot program involving tattoo rooms in six federal institutions. Two years later, the then-Conservative government ended the program.

— Follow @JimBronskill on Twitter

News from © The Canadian Press, 2017
The Canadian Press

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