Prisons aren’t mental hospitals

Pam Frampton
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It’s interesting that in the same week a lengthy standoff ended in Bay Bulls and Leo Crockwell was appearing in court, a national report was released about the importance of keep­ing mentally ill people out of prison.

Crockwell is accused of threatening his sister and firing a gun at police officers who surrounded his house during the standoff.

His family and friends describe him as a wonderful man and a good neighbour, who could be troubled from time to time.

“Things happen that make people go off the rails,” one of his supporters philosophically noted.

We don’t know what Leo Crockwell’s state of mind was during the standoff, nor what precipitated it.

And, frankly, that’s none of our business.

What we should be concerned about, however, is that his case is yet another very public example of how, clearly, not everyone who needs med­i­cal attention, psychological support or psychiatric intervention is getting it.

Such cases are exacerbated when the people don’t want help or even think they need any.

Thankfully, in Crockwell’s case, the standoff ended without anyone being injured or killed. It could have gone — as we know from our own history of standoffs involving troubled men in this province — tragically wrong.

And whatever you think of how the RCMP handled the standoff, the police officers were clearly trying to do everything they could to reach a peaceful end to the situation.

But some of the tactics employed to try to get Crockwell to emerge from his house raise troubling questions.

And they are questions that aren’t easily answered.

Should someone who is clearly in distress, agitated or acting irrationally be isolated inside a building and then bombarded with noise, tear gas and water?

Naturally, if someone poses a threat to the community — as an angry, armed person might — the public has to be protected. This goes without saying.

You cannot, as some onlookers have suggested, simply leave the person to their own devices and let them “cool down.”

If a threat was uttered, that is a crime. If weapons are involved, then evacuating people from the immediate area and setting up a secure perimeter makes sense.

But if you have reason to believe that the person at the heart of such an incident is depressed or anxious or otherwise unwell, is constant noise, sleep deprivation, the stripping away of heat and light and subjecting the person to a torrent of water the best intervention we can provide?

I’m not convinced it is, but it’s easy to say that when you aren’t the person in charge of such a sensitive, potentially violent, incident.

Situation escalated

Leo Crockwell began the standoff as a man who would likely be charged with uttering threats. He ended it as an alleged attempted murderer charged with 16 offences.

In between, something certainly went off the rails.

And all too often in Canada, people who are mentally ill wind up charged with criminal offences before they receive the sort of intervention they need.

As the Report of the Standing Com­mittee on Public Safety and National Security notes, “as far as possible, people suffering from mental disorders and addictions should not end up in detention because of these problems, or the lack of community resources. Correctional institutions should not be serving as hospitals by default.”

And yet correctional institutions are frequently the first places mentally ill people get access to the help they need, and care behind bars is expensive.

The report notes “the need for rapid intervention, well before those concerned come into conflict with the law,” and says, “we also have to ensure that community mental health services are both available and effective.”

There’s a dollars-and-cents reason why this makes good sense.

“It would be more cost-effective, in the long term,” the report states, “to invest in the risk and protection factors that affect the mental health of all Canadians, rather than continually increase funding for mental health services provided in correctional institutions.”

In short, it’s cheaper to treat mental illness in hospitals than in prison — a place that, for many reasons, is not necessarily conducive to good mental health.

And that’s not to mention how much it must have cost the police to have a presence in Bay Bulls 24/7 — bringing in special teams from the Maritimes, using specialized technology and paying plenty of overtime. It cost the local economy as well, with some businesses closed for a week.

Twelve years ago, Leo Crockwell spent 140 days in the Waterford Hospital because of the erratic behaviour he was displaying at work.

What could have been done be­tween 1998 and now that might have prevented him from being holed up in a house for nearly eight days, with sharpshooters’ rifles trained on him?

It will be interesting to learn the results of the independent police investigation being conducted into how the RCMP handled the standoff.

I fear the larger problem — how to stop people who are mentally troubled from falling through the cracks and ending up in jail instead of receiving medical treatment — will be far harder to resolve.

Pam Frampton is The Telegram’s story editor. She can be reached by email at

Organizations: RCMP, Standing Com, National Security Waterford Hospital

Geographic location: Bay Bulls, Canada

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Recent comments

    December 20, 2010 - 23:06

    Leo, could have lashed out at the Police, but he didn't!! He just wanted to get away, and indeed , he got away. Things could have been much different, if he had wanted it to be!!! I hope Leo gets all the help he needs and I commend the RCMP for being ,once again, a professional Police Force, that had their main goal attained - of no one getting hurt!! Were they lucky? You bet your sweet bibby!!

  • jacob
    December 20, 2010 - 15:42

    I hear you guys loud and clear but punks are punks and should be treated accordingly. As for Mr. Crockwell he'll pay a price regardless simply because he made the RCMP look foolish for their overly dramatic antics. The joke they were distractred when someone showed up with a box of Timbits allowing Crockwell to take off is not as foolish as it appears.

  • Anon
    December 19, 2010 - 14:14

    The public will never be convinced of what makes sense when the government lies to them to make money. The prisons are a business and that is why Harper is allowing private companies lucrative contracts to build new prisons while "getting tough on crime" and giving out mandatory minimum sentences for drug charges and more time for crimes that may or may not be violent. There is no getting tough on crime when it's already happened. Prison doesn't solve problems. A thief will steal, go to jail and never get a job again because he went to jail for being a thief. So he'll have to do the same stuff that was the same stuff that got em locked up in the first place. The majority if citizens havn't been to prison and can't therefore expose it as the farce that it is. People go in to prison and come out MORE violent and the crime rates INCREASE. This is supposed to be progress? This is "correction?" Give me a break. Pam Frampton hit the nail on the head but this extends to the entire justice system. Crime must be curved through means other than intimidation and fear. We can start by imprisoning people in drug rehab instead of solitary confinement. Mental hospitals instead of "secure facilities" and treat people like people who made a mistake, not people who are mistakes.

  • Helene Murrin
    December 19, 2010 - 12:50

    Mr Crockwell is a perfect example of what can happen when a person has a mental breakdown due to either depression or associated to other illnesses. I'm not surprised to find out that he at one point in his life, was a sick man and it looks like he never did got the help he should have got, mentally, physically or maybe financially. Let's hope that he will be getting help now and not left rotting in jail like so many have and still do today. Good luck Mr Crockwell in getting the help that you certainly deserve like everyone else who is sick.