Concerns raised too many mentally ill being incarcerated, warehoused
Howard Sapers, correctional investigator of Canada — File Photo
Recently, in provincial court in St. John’s, two men charged with unrelated sex offences appeared in separate court rooms asking for sentences of more than two years so they could access treatment programs in federal prisons.
One man, who admitted to acts of indecent exposure on a walking trail, said he had been asking for help locally long before being arrested. He said he was told by someone he wouldn’t name that he would likely have to make a good attempt at committing suicide to be admitted to a psychiatric facility for treatment.
The defence lawyers and judges hearing the cases agreed to federal prison terms for the two men.
Howard Sapers, correctional investigator of Canada, says this is happening right across the country. He’s heard it’s happening even more frequently with female offenders, where their lawyers will tell the court their clients could benefit from a program offered at a federal women’s centre.
Sapers, who serves as an ombudsman for federal offenders and prepares annual reports for the Correctional Service of Canada, describes this as “very much a double-edged sword.”
There is good programming in the federal system, he said in an interview, but there are also long wait lists and backlogs.
“While an individual may believe they will get access to good treatment in a federal prison, the reality is that they likely won’t, particularly if they have a very short sentence,” he said. “Access to correctional programs in the federal system are plagued by a number of issues: physical space shortages, so not enough classrooms for example. … No. 2, not enough people to deliver the programs and, No. 3, overcrowding, particularly in medium security.”
Sapers said these three issues combined “really confound correctional plans,” which are based on assessments and screenings. An inmate may be recommended to be placed in a program dealing with sexual aggression, for example, but that program may be in high demand, not offered in every federal prison or the offender may not be incarcerated at the same time the program is offered.
The inmate may be released without the program they hoped to avail of, Sapers said, or if they’re being considered for a conditional release, the parole board may not grant it because they haven’t been able to make progress through a prescribed treatment program. If they have to stay in prison longer, this contributes to overcrowding and “fuels the whole cycle all over again.”
In his 2009-10 report, Sapers raised concerns that federal penitentiaries are fast becoming the nation’s “largest psychiatric facilities and repositories for the mentally ill.”
As a society, he said, “we are criminalizing, incarcerating and warehousing the mentally disordered in large and alarming numbers” because their needs are not always met in the community health and social welfare systems.
Sapers’ mandate is federal, so he can’t make direct recommendations to provinces. But he did comment on what he feels is contributing to problems in the federal corrections system.
“We’ve got a tremendous number of men and women coming to criminal courts right across the country who really should be dealt with outside of the legal system,” he said, such as people with mental disorders and addictions. “It’s their health status which has contributed to bringing them into conflict with the law.”
One way to deal with that, he said, is to provide more supports in the community “to provide treatment options, therapeutic options.”
Before women get in trouble with the law, Sapers said, they typically have lived in very marginalized conditions, often with no fixed address, and may be dealing with addictions, mental health or other issues.
“If we could deal with all of those issues before they break the law, before you have to call the police, that would probably give us the best return on our investment. And that’s a combination of federal and provincial responsibilities.”
There are many stories, he said, of men and women coming to hospital emergency rooms in acute phases of mental illness, in distress and not being the most coherent, reasonable or logical.
“As they make their demands for service, they also attract negative attention and so often we see these people … then having to deal with the police because they’re being charged with threatening behaviour. … Eventually they get the help that they came for, but they get it through the courts,” Sapers said. “It is a very expensive and inefficient way for these people to receive the help that they need.”
Sapers said the annual cost for one federal inmate is now around $100,000 a year, up from $83,000 a year in 2003-04. In some cases, it can be up to $300,000 a year, depending on the security classification, intensity of the treatment and programs required, as well as how many times the offender is moved, whether there are appeals and whether they have to go back and forth to court.
Overcrowding and an increase in double-bunking is also causing safety concerns, he said, with security, use-of-force and self-harming incidents on the rise.
“I suppose it’s an academic question to decide whether or not there’s a direct correlation, but there certainly is a corresponding increase in institutional violent incidents and crowding,” he said.
His latest report provides a one-day incarcerated offender count of 13,353 on May 10, 2009, with 3,190 assignments to core correctional programs.
Sapers said the Correctional Service of Canada has to take whoever the courts send them.
“That’s why I say, to start with, let’s look at who it is we’re sending to prison and let’s understand what the role of a prison is,” he said. “Prison isn’t a hospital — it never can be — so that’s the first thing, to make sure we’re using prison appropriately.”
He has also recommended aligning resources to meet the need because the Correctional Service of Canada currently spends less than three per cent of its annual budget on programs. Sapers believes program spending should be brought back into balance and an adequate array of programs offered.
Sapers’ 2010-11 report has been submitted to the federal minister and is expected to be made public in the near future.