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Visions Journal

A reminder that this article from our magazine Visions was published more than 1 year ago. It is here for reference only. Some information in it may no longer be current. It also represents the point of the view of the author only. See the author box at the bottom of the article for more about the contributor.

Kim Meier

Reprinted from "Criminal Justice" issue of Visions Journal, 2005, 2 (8), p. 6

The number of people with mental illnesses in prisons across Canada is increasing. The Correctional Investigator, an ombudsman for federal inmates, has recently reported that the numbers of men and women in federal prison with significant identified mental health needs has more than doubled over the last decade. In his last annual report, it is estimated that at least one in eight incarcerated federal prisoners has a diagnosed mental illness; or, 1,500 in a population of approximately 12,500 inmates.1 Additionally, a 2001 study of men sentenced to federal custody in BC found that 30% met the criteria for a mood disorder, 8% for a psychotic disorder and 18% for an anxiety disorder.

This dramatic increase in inmates with mental illnesses in prisons is generally thought to be the result of deinstitutionalization from psychiatric hospitals, along with a failure to provide adequate support services for these people in the community. Without the appropriate supports, many people with mental illness experience a decrease in their quality of life, become involved in substance misuse, end up in trouble with the law, and face incarceration. Despite this “re-institutionalization” process, appropriate services inside prisons have not grown to meet the need.

Inmates with mental illness face serious problems in federal prisons. Not only is their mental health threatened by the stress of prison living conditions, but they are often unable to access a full range of treatments for their illnesses, are often exploited by other prisoners, spend more time segregated and at higher levels of security, have more difficulty accessing correctional programs, and serve a greater proportion of their sentence in prison than do offenders with similar offences who do not have a mental illness.3 Federal mental health staff have been creative in their efforts to better serve this population, but their resources are too thinly stretched to reach all in need.

There are also significant jurisdictional problems faced by inmates serving federal sentences. People with mental illnesses in federal prisons typically do not have access to provincial legal or advocacy services, nor are they permitted to access general mental health resources offered by health authorities. The BC Mental Health Act itself states: “The director of every provincial mental health facility must ensure that no person with a mental disorder is admitted to any provincial mental health facility from a penitentiary or jail, reformatory or institution under the jurisdiction of Canada unless the government of Canada…undertakes to pay all charges for care, treatment and maintenance of that person.”4 This provision and the policies it inspires, effectively deprives even lifelong residents of the province access to service simply because they are serving a federal sentence.

And, as a member of the National Parole Board charged with reviewing parole applications for prisoners who may have a mental illness, it is troubling to see how men and women who have a mental illness come to the table without the advantages enjoyed by other offenders. With incident reports strategy that includes:

  • complete clinical assessments for people entering the system

  • specific enhancements of current treatment centres

  • intermediate mental health care units within existing institutions to provide ongoing assessment

  • treatment and community mental health services to support individuals on conditional release

So far funding has only been secured for the provision of some community mental health support services for prisoners on conditional release. Funding for institutional programs and more staff and facilities has not been forthcoming.

People with mental illness in federal prisons typically do not have access to provincial legal or advocacy services.

Efforts are being made by federal correctional staff to establish agreements with provincial agencies and health authorities, to better meet the needs of the people they serve. Provincial mental health staff are interested in helping, but are also faced with significant resource issues. However, progress is being made, sometimes on an office ­by­ office basis.

The present restrictive approach to managing people with mental illness who are serving federal sentences in a prison setting or in the community is particularly ironic. Though the media and certain politicians would have us believe otherwise, the majority of offenders use their prison sentences as opportunities to change their lives. And research consistently shows that this group of people is significantly less likely to commit a new offence after release than are other offenders.

Adequate resources and effective intergovernmental and interagency working relationships are needed. Prisoners with mental illnesses must get the help they need while in prison and must have safe and well ­supported conditional release opportunities. A period of supervision in the community, which includes the resources and services they need, is instrumental to a person’s success after their sentence is over.

Our foremost goal, however, must be to prevent the unnecessary incarceration of people with mental illnesses. This completely preventable abuse of the rights and freedoms of our most vulnerable citizens can no longer be tolerated in Canadian society.

About the Authors

Patrick works full-time with the National Parole Board. He has worked in a variety of mental health settings in BC and Alberta for the past 25 years and is a member of the Canadian Mental Health Association’s BC Division

Jim has worked within the Correctional Service of Canada for 30 years, in both community and industrial settings. He is currently working on a project to facilitate better bridging of services between community and mental health agencies

  1. Correctional Investigator of Canada. (2005, June). Annual Report of the Correctional Investigator 2004–2005. Ottawa, ON: Author

  2. Brink, J., Doherty, D. & Boer, S. (2001). Mental disorder in federal offenders: A Canadian prevalence study. Journal of Law and Psychiatry, 24, 339-356.

  3. Motiuk, L. & Porporino, F. (1995). The prison careers of offenders with mental disorders. International Journal of Law and Psychiatry, 18(1), 29-44.

  4. BC Mental Health Act RSBC 1996, c. 288, s. 12. Victoria, BC: Queen’s Printer. Retrieved February 7, 2006, at M/96288_01.htm#section12.

  5. Bonta, J., Law, M. & Hanson, R.K. (1998). The prediction of criminal and violent recidivism among mentally disordered offenders: A meta-analysis. Psychological Bulletin, 123, 123-142.

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