Prisons under pressure

Correctional officers want more training to deal with mentally ill inmates

Pam Frampton
Published on August 16, 2014

“Staff visits to (Correctional Service of Canada) facilities across the country confirm that access to health care, particularly mental health services and acute or complex care, remains fragmented and variable, especially in more remote penitentiaries.”
— 2012-13 annual report from the Office of the Correctional Investigator, Howard Sapers

Imagine going to work every single day inside a pressure cooker.

That’s what prisons can be like. Inmates are under constant strain; none of them want to be there, cut off from their families and communities; their freedom has been curtailed and they are subject to strict routine. There are conflicts and infighting.

As a correctional officer, these are the people you interact with every day. Many of them are struggling with addictions and mental health conditions that you have not been adequately trained to identify, respond to or deal with.

Not only that, privacy rules mean you may not have information about their conditions, even if it could improve your interactions.

In an ideal world, inmates who are mentally ill would have access to the same quality of care as they would outside in the community. But this is not always the case.

At the federal level, correctional investigator Howard Sapers noted in his 2012-13 annual report that “nearly one-third of (Correctional Services of Canada’s) total psychologist staff complement is either vacant or ‘under-filled.’”

And correctional officers say they have not been given sufficient training to handle inmates who are mentally ill.

Jason Godin, the national vice-president of the Union of Canadian Correctional Officers, has 22 years’ experience as a correctional officer, working in maximum security prisons like Kingston and Millhaven, whose notorious tenants have included Paul Bernardo and Clifford Olson.

He says correctional officers are not getting the training they need, despite years of union lobbying.

Forty-five per cent of male inmates in Canada and 69 per cent of female inmates have required some sort of mental health intervention while incarcerated.

“We end up being first responders, of course, 365 days a year,” Godin said, when I spoke to him on July 31.

“We receive some initial training as part of correctional officer training. The union has pressed for two days of mental awareness training, but some correctional officers still don’t have that. Training is a huge issue — there’s a major lack of it. It’s extremely frustrating. We’re not privy to the same information as a health-care professional. It’s all private.”

Carol Furlong, president of NAPE, the union that represents correctional officers in this province, shares Godin’s concerns.

“Many of the people who end up incarcerated should probably be sent to a mental health facility,” she said.

“Correctional officers don’t have the training to deal with mental health issues. There’s a whole myriad of issues at play here. … First of all, it’s not a natural environment. People are not free to roam around as they please. People may be plotting against each other. You are always looking over your shoulder. It breeds paranoia. The fact that correctional officers don’t have that training in mental health only adds to the pressure. The effect that has on correctional officers can’t be underestimated.”

Godin said as prison populations have become more diverse and the mental health needs of inmates more complex, correctional officers’ jobs have become more challenging.

“One day I could be searching a guy’s cell for drugs and wrestling with him to get the drugs, the next day I could be counselling him not to hang himself. Fifty years ago, we were jailers. Today, correctional officers are psychologists, we’re enforcers of the law, we’re firefighters, we’re counsellors, we’re first aid responders.”

Consider a case like this week’s sentencing of Nancy Hart, who will spend roughly a year in prison for having threatened to sexually assault and kill children at a St. John’s elementary school. Hart recognizes her own potential to reoffend and has asked the justice system for a longer period of supervision. She clearly needs psychiatric treatment, but she’s been sent to the women’s prison in Clarenville.

Furlong worries about the ramifications of incarcerating people like Hart, who would be better served in a mental hospital.

“There’s really nothing in place to deal with her at Clarenville, and that facility has been at overcapacity for years,” she said.

Graham Rogerson, superintendent of prisons in this province, acknowledged correctional officers are not health-care professionals, but says psychology services are available at all provincial prisons and initiatives are in place or planned to improve mental health and suicide prevention training for correctional officers.

There is also joint training in the works for correctional officers and Waterford Hospital staff who deal with inmates and patients with complex needs.

On the federal side, Godin says the Harper administration’s “tough on crime” policy will only result in more and more people being incarcerated in crowded jails for longer periods of time before eventually being released without the proper treatment or supports.

“We’re going to be in a worse situation in 10 years with this government,” he said.

“The Harper government is going down the road the United States went down several years ago. They’re sacrificing the rehabilitative side of things — double, triple-bunking all those guys, no programs. Eighty-five per cent of those guys are going to come back into our communities. … This government is missing the boat. It’s ideological-based decision making, not research-based decision making.”

The bottom line? Mentally ill inmates need health care. Correctional officers need the training necessary to keep themselves and inmates safe. The status quo isn’t good enough.

Pressure cookers, left unattended for too long, can explode.

Pam Frampton is a columnist and

The Telegram’s associate managing editor. Email

Twitter: pam_frampton