Prisoners need work, not pills, retired doctor says

Rosie Mullaley rmullaley@thetelegram.com
Published on January 14, 2016
Retired physician Dr. David Playfair believes the best medical treatment for prisoners would be to have them do physical work outside the prison.
Rosie Mullaley/The Telegram

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.

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.

 

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“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.

 

rmullaley@thetelegram

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