It might sound like a simple name change, just a shift of responsibilities from one provincial government department to another.
But in this case, you can argue that it may save lives.
Health Minister Dr. John Haggie has said that, within a year, inmate health care will move completely from being a responsibility of the Department of Justice to the Department of Health.
If nothing else, it’s a change of focus for such care from security to health; in other words, it may mean that the health of the inmate may be a more pressing concern than the immediate concerns of maintaining order in Her Majesty’s Penitentiary, a facility that virtually everyone agrees is woefully in need of modern replacement.
And Dr. Haggie has gone further, saying that continuing care — either counselling or seeing a doctor — should run consistently throughout a prisoner’s time in jail.
Why shouldn’t an inmate continue to receive treatment and medical prescriptions from their own physician, whether they are inside or outside the penitentiary?
In the past, incarceration has meant an abrupt interruption in health care; for years, prisoners have had to deal with health-care professionals within the justice system who may have a profoundly different view of the necessity of different types of care.
Inmates have complained about being cut off cold turkey from longtime medical regimes, and there have been cases where judges have tried to ensure — by an order from the bench — that prisoners be able to continue to receive care from their own physicians.
Why shouldn’t an inmate continue to receive treatment and medical prescriptions from their own physician, whether they are inside or outside the penitentiary? The issue is their medical well-being — the punishment part of prison surely does not include a requirement for medical penalization in any form, does it?
There are set reasons for detaining a person in prison: punishment by removing them from friends, family and normal life. It’s done both to protect the public, and in order to deter others from committing the same offences.
But prison sentences are not meant to punish some prisoners even more by making abrupt changes in their medical care. Prisons are not supposed to deliver particular anguish on those who are suffering from mental health issues — and plenty of people with mental health issues end up in prison, despite the fact there are better way to address their issues both earlier and more effectively.
The proposed changes come at a significant time: corrections institutions in the province are undergoing a review following a series of deaths in custody. There have been four deaths in the province’s corrections system in the last year, with the latest being the suicide of Christopher Sutton.
It seems impossible that the status quo can be allowed to continue.
A new set of eyes, focusing on mental and physical health first and foremost, is an excellent first step.