Canada has Fallen Behind, Panel on Mental Health in Prisons Says

  • National Newswatch

Underfunded, under resourced, unseen, and inadequately supported. These were the words panellists at Wednesday's Senate Liberal Open Caucus used to describe investments in mental health at Canadian correctional facilities.“Canada has fallen behind,” said Gary Chaimowitz, Professor at McMaster University and Chair of the Psychiatry Section of the Ontario Medical Association. Reflecting on the fact that one in three Canadian inmates suffers from mental illness, he described Canada's shift away from service and education for inmates and correctional workers as a “shameful situation”.“All Canadians deserve, and have a right to, equitable access to healthcare, regardless of where they live or what situation they are in. The fact that the correctional system is where many who have untreated mental illness are highlights the need for access to much needed treatment,” explained Dr. Chaimowitz.The panel emphasized that this shift away from a patient centered approach has resulted in the routine use of solitary confinement – a practice the panel described as torturous and a human rights violation. They discussed at length the negative – and potentially fatal – consequences of segregation which exacerbates prisoners' mental illnesses.Other panellists shared concerns surrounding larger public health and safety risks. Lee Chapelle, President of Canadian Prison Consulting Inc., called for investments in rehabilitation noting that 95% of all inmates will be released back into communities. “Human rights and healthcare are at the top of the list, and we're failing,” said Mr. Chapelle.While recognizing that time must be paid for crimes committed, Howard Sapers, Correctional Investigator of Canada, noted “mentally ill individuals don't belong, nor can they be properly managed in a correctional facility…. Jailing people with illness does not promote public safety as the system was never intended to cope.”Executive Director of the John Howard Society of Canada, Catherine Latimer, agreed that “prisons were never made to accommodate mentally ill inmates” and Michelle Mann-Rempel, a lawyer specialized in Aboriginal criminal justice, elaborated on how this is particularly the case for indigenous persons in custody who do not have access to culturally appropriate treatments.Senators, from across party lines, echoed calls for federal leadership on the issue. Conservative Senator Bob Runciman called for greater government accountability referring to a lack of follow-up to the Ashley Smith inquest. Independent Senator Pierre-Hugues Boisvenu appealed for greater communication and cooperation amongst correctional systems and Senate Liberal Jim Munson, Chair of the Standing Senate Committee on Human Rights, proposed a study on the issue.Other senators present discussed a range of recommendations including funding increases, addressing the overrepresentation of indigenous persons in prisons, and legislative action to reduce or eliminate segregation practices. But ultimately, both senators and panellists concluded by agreeing that parliamentarians, in the words of Ms. Latimer, have a unique opportunity and responsibility to “shine a light into this dark area”.Art Eggleton is a Canadian Senator and former Mayor of Toronto and Member of Parliament.