Prisoners need work, not pills, retired doctor says

Rosie Mullaley
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He’s seen the media coverage about the controversial medical treatment of prison inmates in St. John’s and he’s heard the criticism of the psychiatrist in charge.

Retired physician Dr. David Playfair believes the best medical treatment for prisoners would be to have them do physical work outside the prison.

But a doctor who worked at a prison in another part of the province believes the answer to making inmates feel better isn’t about prescription drugs or about who does and doesn’t prescribe them.

In Dr. David Playfair’s opinion, what’s wrong with the prison system is not the lack of pills for prisoners, but the lack of work.

He believes inmates should be made to do physical labour outside the prison as part of their sentences.

It would benefit their overall health — both physical and mental — plus help the community, he said.


Related story:

‘What I’m doing has to be done’

“Part of what makes prisoners unhappy is that there isn’t a lot to do in prisons,” said Playfair, a retired physician who treated inmates at the Labrador Correctional Centre in Happy Valley-Goose Bay for six years in the 1990s.

“Some of the inmates get a chance to push a broom or carry some boxes, but most of the time, they’re sitting around or playing Ping-Pong. That’s not natural.”

He said hard work would boost their morale and energy.

The issue of inmates’ medical treatment has been in the news for several years, with Dr. David Craig, the psychiatrist at Her Majesty’s Penitentiary, being criticized for holding back medications from prisoners who had been prescribed them by family physicians. In a recent interview with The Telegram, Craig said prisoners are being overdiagnosed and over-medicated.

Playfair agrees.

“If you’re sentenced to prison, you’re supposed to be unhappy. If anybody felt happy in prison, it wouldn’t be working. It’s supposed to be a deterrent,” said Playfair, who is from England and emigrated to Canada in 1973.

“But when you’re unhappy, there’s still hope that one day you will be happy again. It’s very different from depression, a disease in which someone has hopeless misery.

“These days, people use the English language badly. It’s catchy to say, ‘I’m so depressed today because my boyfriend hasn’t phoned,’ or, ‘because I couldn’t get what I wanted at the store.’ But that’s not depression. That’s unhappiness.

“These guys get put in a prison and most of them don’t have an illness. They’re unhappy. They ask for pills and when they don’t get them, they grumble about it.”

A hard day’s work would go a long way to helping prisoners create a better life for themselves, because most of whom are uneducated and have never had a routine of having to show up daily to work hard, Playfair said.

“It teaches that satisfaction which only a job well done can provide,” he said.

Playfair recalls a time during the 1990s when prisoners in the Happy Valley-Goose Bay facility were called upon to help fight a forest fire in the area.

“The morale and energy of the convicts shot up after (that),” said Playfair, who lived in Happy Valley-Goose Bay between 1978 and 2012, when he retired and moved to Colliers.

“It was a good experience for them.”

Playfair said there’s plenty of work that can be done in this province — enough for paid workers as well as prisoners, most of whom are unskilled workers, he said.

“Suppose a new mine is being started (in Labrador),” he said. “Inmates could dig holes, put up fences, make roads or carry bricks to build buildings.

“I don’t mean convict labour should be a substitute for proper unionized labourers. There is enough potential work here for everybody.”

Playfair doesn’t have details about how such an arrangement might be made and he realizes it would require government spending for such things as more corrections officers for security.

For a province that’s in such a difficult economic state, that may seem a bit much to ask for, but Playfair doesn’t think we should wait until things get better economically.

“That’s a bit like saying we can’t afford the medicine now that you’re ill, but when you get better, you can take it then,” he said. “We need the medicine now.”

And that medicine, he said, doesn’t come in a pill bottle.



Twitter: TelyCourt

Organizations: Labrador Correctional Centre

Geographic location: Happy Valley, Goose Bay, England Canada Colliers Labrador

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Recent comments

  • sheila brown
    January 16, 2016 - 17:12

    This man is an amazing doctor. And, he is 100% correct. A job helps give a person purpose, which boosts morale and self esteem. What can be more hopeless to somebody than no way to make a living, and care for your family?

  • Randy
    January 16, 2016 - 14:15

    @Kevin Did you build the house you love in?

  • somewhatagree!
    January 16, 2016 - 11:39

    Those with true mental heath problems should be helped in a facility to help them not a jail. For the ones that are doing the crimes and are able bodied individuals without these problems, should defiantly have to work to complete their sentence. We would have less populated jails if they were required to work but not treated like slaves of course.

  • Thanks Dr. Playfair for your voice of reason on drug abuse.
    January 15, 2016 - 22:50

    Dr. Craig and now Dr. Playfair both coming forward as voices of reason on drug abuse. What a coup for society's good! A good day's work is better than all the pills in the world and next to a good day's work is a good walk each day if time permits. Both are very exilerating activities that keep the mind healthy.

  • Christin
    January 15, 2016 - 17:15

    Nothing wrong when the end of the day comes and you just want to lay your head down and rest because you did a good day's work. They would feel accomplished, less bored and ready to re-enter society.

  • kevin
    January 15, 2016 - 15:20

    Maybe the prisoners can build a new pen, after all most of them live there

  • What?
    January 15, 2016 - 12:31

    Gulags and slave labour? Really? This guy is totally out to lunch. And at no time since Craig made himself god of prescriptions has it been reported that prisoners were going to him asking to be put on drugs. The story has always been that Craig was taking prisoners off drugs that were prescribed to them before they entered prison. Dr. Grizzly McAdams has no idea what he's talking about. The commenters here that think North Korea is on the right track with their hard labour prison camps should give their heads a shake - maybe they'll wake up in the 21st century. There is a lot of room between being thrown in a cell to rot and forced labour. How about some programs that can give prisoners a skill to keep them out of jail, or is that to 'nanny state' for the nasty, red-neck, bunch here.

    • QuebecCityOliver
      January 16, 2016 - 10:06

      Not at all, and if you knew David you would know that is definitely not what he is advocating. Basically what he is advocating is exercise but useful exercise, exercise with a purpose and goal. Have you never heard of Collins Bay, Kingston, Ontario - I am sure David has. I also don't think any rational person would want this to be forced labour.

  • Jack-o
    January 15, 2016 - 11:53

    How exactly does being a physician make one an expert on the prison system? So you worked in a prison; fine. You have no more credibility to speak on this issue than the prison plumber or someone on the custodial staff. If anyone should be heard, it would be a social worker or someone else with an education in human and social development.

    • Joe
      January 15, 2016 - 12:44

      Jack-O--- Way to go. Your views are insightful.

    • Voice of Reason
      January 15, 2016 - 15:22

      He is an expert on mental health. Things which contribute or detract from mental health are his business.

  • Julie
    January 15, 2016 - 11:02

    Thank you for speaking up dr play fair. We need to all speak up to change a system that is not working. It is our system to change for the better. Even the Waterford hospital was created originally to give people purpose. Now the hospital takes away purpose and confuses people. Let's get back on track and change the HMP and the Waterford to help make a better community.

  • clary butt
    January 15, 2016 - 11:01

    I agree with the doctor they should be put on a chain gang

  • Self Righteous Justice?
    January 15, 2016 - 10:53

    Just finished Jack Fitzgerald's book filled witg true stories about crime and punishment in Ye Olde Colony. Often the punishment was more gruesome than the crime. About 150 years ago the inmates at that same bldg.(!) would have to manually break rocks for the new wall. Chain gangs and penal colonies are useless, but the thing that the doctor does not understand is the concept of deterrence. Western justice works such that since not all criminals or would be criminals will be caught, then an example needs to be made out of the ones that are caught. The prisoner "pays his debt to society" by enduring extra suffering to deter other criminals. The greatest deterrence is that the person is removed from society -and for what they stole from the victims time living a life is stolen from them. They cannot be allowed to form their own "inmate society" inside or outside the walls. They need "exercise"... so do horses. The good Doctor must be exaggerating for effect?

  • B Younger
    January 15, 2016 - 10:27

    Finally a person with some experience saying something useful. I agree with this Dr. competely. There was atime in Newfoundland when some prisioners were offered a chance to complete their sentences at a remote worksite and I happened to know one such person and he told me it was the best thing that ever happened to him. He had a very productive worklife and a successful one as well. His children went on to be very productive in medicine, contruction and office work. People that are left to rot in a cell and exercise in a gym will not appreciate freedom when their sentence if over.

  • clary butt
    January 15, 2016 - 10:21

    I agree with the doctor they should be put on a chain gang

  • EDfromRED
    January 15, 2016 - 10:12

    This proposal makes complete sense. It's a Win-Win idea.... so it has Zero chance of getting implemented here. Some Stunned Politicians buddy whose job it is to approve and implement such a proposal would rather nap. Our Provincial bureaucracy is truly "A Confederacy of Dunces".

  • Wenmar
    January 15, 2016 - 10:03

    They are complaining how dirty it is inside the walls, maybe they should clean up the pen!

  • Lionel
    January 15, 2016 - 09:19

    A doctor of what? Certainly not criminology. Also, if prisoners are supposed to be unhappy and being forced to work makes them happy, doesn't that defeat the purpose? (Besides, we know that unhappy people coming out of prison adjust quickly to society and go on to live happy, productive lives ?!!). I get the idea he isn't a doctor of logic either.

  • Ladybug
    January 15, 2016 - 09:14

    Agree 100 percent.

  • Donna J.
    January 15, 2016 - 09:10

    How does that old saying go? Oh yes, "Arbeit macht frei." Forced labour and misery is not a route to rehabilitation. The civilised world learned this a century ago. There are models that are effective including mental health and addictions treatments, but they wouldn't appeal to the weak-minded mouth-breathers here have absolutely no understanding of mental health, the penal system, or the very basic notions of what it means to be human. Here's a hint: promoting slavery isn't one of them.

    • Pious
      January 15, 2016 - 12:33

      I suggest you don't have the right to be so pious. Your opinion is no more or less than any others here.

    • Donna J.
      January 15, 2016 - 13:49

      At least I'm not advocating forced labour.

  • Richard Cranium
    January 15, 2016 - 09:08

    This Doctor has it right. Why should prisoners be let to sit around doing nothing. I had to work all my life starting at 14 years old. It didn't hurt me and I never had a reason to go to prison. I was too busy working making a living. If criminals had that mindset they wouldn't be in the trouble that they are in and they would have a live other than criminal activity and drugs for a lot of them.

    • Steve Shortridge
      January 15, 2016 - 10:32

      Your name suits.

  • Patricia
    January 15, 2016 - 08:59

    Dr.Playfair is spot on.There is way too much reliance on drugs.Work is very productive to making one feel good about themselves and maybe they could earn some money to get them back on their feet when they get out of prison.Of course it will never fly with the unions objecting to anything constructive.

  • PHMC
    January 15, 2016 - 08:53

    The most common sense article I have read in a while. Good for you, Dr.Playfair

  • Canuck
    January 15, 2016 - 08:19

    The man is absolutely right! These prisoners would so benefit in doing work in the community. Having a reason to get out of bed, fresh air, feeling that they are a productive part of society and helping the community. Nothing but positive! Same goes for well-abled bodied on social assistance. After the snow melts, the streets of St. John's are full of garbage. They could be cleaning that up; helping elderly shovel their driveway, etc. There are many things that can be done. It would be a win win for everyone. An unstructured, unfilled life is probably what got them behind bars in the first place.

  • pt
    January 15, 2016 - 08:07

    Get them cleaning brush, picking up garbage etc etc. They are criminals if they don't wanna go to the pen because its so horrible dont do the crime. They have shelter food and heat. Look up Sheriff joe Arpario if you wanna see how it should be done in my opinion

    • RATTER 01
      January 15, 2016 - 08:28

      Dr. Playfair and Sheriff Joe - what a forceful duo. They'd get it done right the first time.

  • RATTER 01
    January 15, 2016 - 08:05

    Dr. Playfair has got it right. About time government took notice and did something for a change. For example, lots of work to be done on our highways, like cutting back the brush, cleaning up the litter, digging ditches. Back breaking yes, but at the end of the day the prisoners will know they do some good. Maybe then the next time they think about committing a crime they will think twice. The convicts are in jail for a reason, they broke the law. They are NOT on vacation and should not be treated as such. Make them work for their keep and their wellbeing.

    • Wallabanger
      January 16, 2016 - 09:01

      Folks - a doctor that has worked in prisons along with the rest of his expertise wouldn't grant him the smarts to know that some good old community service would benefit prisoners really? Of course it would, by the sounds of it, prison is heaven on a bun, maybe when I want an extended break from work that would be the answer for me - no vaccuming, no dusting, no cooking, NO CLEANING - nothing - that's much better than the vacations we take every year because we are productive in society meaning we work for what we get - we are not nuisances in society, and we pay our own way, unlike prisoners they are living a dream!! Look at the spot up on Salmonier Line, sure there were prisoners up there that had it better than the taxpayers of the province who are paying for their reservations to these places. If I want reservations I have to pay for them - so should the prisoners give back to the community be productive instead of destructive in society!! It's time for change, maybe some of the comments made by individuals above do not contribute to society and have family relations or friends that are tied up in this justice system and do not pay to have these nuisances at these institutions - sick and tired of hearing of prisoners rights - really???

  • Joe
    January 15, 2016 - 07:56

    Most of the prisoners have many fine attributes but have circumstances in life that have caused low self esteem. By working , studying and learning skills they would feel a sense of worth. They would need follow up and support outside the system. I'm sure many would be productive. There is nothing wrong with sensible and responsible use of medication,

  • Dolf
    January 15, 2016 - 07:45

    Dr. Playfair's dead on. Pity nobody in authority will listen. I'd go further & send 'em to a military style boot camp. Inmates didn't get there stealing candy from babies.

  • Daniel Corbett
    January 15, 2016 - 07:23

    Is it possible to recruit this gentleman for the post of Minister of Labour? He seems to understand the value and benefits of work to the worker and also to society. In all likelihood, he could explain to his Cabinet colleagues the obvious rewards of gaining a living through legitimate employment as opposed to fraud or some other form of thievery. He could further explain the drawbacks inherent in sending your fish, for example, off to China rather than processing it here at home. Given our history, it is not safe to assume that the current new cabinet would already understand all the benefits deriving from an honest day’s work.

  • Grandpa Pike
    January 15, 2016 - 06:58

    All of us--the imprisioned and the 'free' would be healthier doing more work and eating less pills.

  • steve
    January 15, 2016 - 06:46

    Just what we need, more costs associated with the prison system to hire guards to watch them while they work in remote areas building mines and extra housing and accommodation costs and flying them.Not to mention the union backlash.

    • Joe
      January 15, 2016 - 07:46

      Steve-- thats not the point of his story. Read it again

  • Randy
    January 15, 2016 - 05:42

    Finally, someone with some sense but of course nobody is going to listen to him. A hard days work never hurt anyone and it would certainly go a long ways in rehabilitating them.

  • Me
    January 14, 2016 - 21:28

    We've been saying that for years. HMP must be boring. What can you do in there? We complain about the garbage in the woods. Send them in the dirt roads to clean it up. Fresh air and exercise, can't beat it. If you take off, no more trips outside and a longer sentence.