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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.

Not equipped to care for growing numbers of prisoners with mental illnesses

Howard Sapers

Reprinted from "Criminal Justice" issue of Visions Journal, 2005, 2 (8), p. 14-15

As Correctional Investigator of Canada, I have expressed my concerns about deficiencies in mental health services in Canada’s correctional institutions. In my Annual Report 2003-04,1 I included a special section highlighting the Office of the Correctional Investigator’s concerns about the delivery of appropriate mental health services to federal offenders. By and large, the section reflected support for the mental health strategy developed by the Correctional Service of Canada (CSC). The CSC’s strategy acknowledges that the proportion of federal offenders with significant, identified mental health needs has more than doubled over the past decade. The strategy was released at approximately the same time as the CSC’s study on heath care needs of federal inmates was published in the Canadian Journal of Public Health.

The study on inmates’ health care needs shows that inmates have consistently poorer physical and mental health as compared to the general population, regardless of the indicator chosen. Indicators included such socioeconomic measures as level of education and unemployment; health behaviour, such as smoking and substance abuse; chronic conditions, including diabetes and heart conditions; infectious diseases, such as HIV and tuberculosis; mental heath disorders, including schizophrenia and mood disorders; and mortality, such as homicide and suicide.

In my latest Annual Report 2004-05, I stated that mental health services offered by the Correctional Service to offenders with mental health issues have not kept up with the dramatic increase in numbers. The level of mental health programming available is now seriously deficient. This has been further highlighted by a recent review on mental health, mental illness and addiction conducted by the Standing Senate Committee on Social Affairs, Science and Technology, chaired by the Honourable.

Michael J.L. Kirby. In its interim report,4 the committee concurred with the Correctional Service’s conclusions:

  • The Correctional Service must have a greater capacity to respond to the needs of offenders to gain access to mental health services and addiction treatment

  • The Correctional Service’s five treatment centres are not resourced at levels comparable to provincial forensic facilities

  • Psychologists are primarily engaged in risk assessment for conditional release decision­making as opposed to treatment and rehabilitation

  • There is no specific training for front­line correctional staff on mental illness and addiction

The need for enhancements to community support for offenders on release was also identified as a priority, to provide services throughout the course of the sentence and beyond.

The Correctional Service’s strategy promotes the adoption of a continuum of care from initial intake through the safe release of offenders into the community. The strategy indicates that significant investments are required in four major areas:

  • Comprehensive clinical intake assessment

  • Specific requirements for enhancing the Correctional Services’s current treatment centres

  • Intermediate mental health care units within existing institutions to provide ongoing treatment and assessment during the period of incarceration

  • Community mental health to support offenders on conditional release

The OCI was pleased that this past year the Executive Committee of the Correctional Service of Canada fully endorsed the above four­point strategy, and that funding was secured for many aspects of the community component of the strategy. Unfortunately, the CSC has not secured or identified funding for the other three key components of its strategy.

Again, the OCI welcomed the news of new investments in community mental health. Mentally disordered offenders will be better served as they prepare for release and during their release into the community. However, strengthening the back end of the CSC’s mental health system provides only a partial solution. Properly assessing the offender population at intake and ensuring that their mental health needs are adequately addressed throughout their sentence is what should be done. This would enhance public safety by maximizing safe reintegration into the community. And it would fully capitalize on the community mental health component of the Correctional Service’s strategy.

At my news conference on November 4, 2005, I called on the Correctional Service of Canada to swiftly address the serious deficiencies in the delivery of mental health services to this vulnerable group of offenders by fully implementing its own strategy within the year. I also emphasized that this will require new partnerships and actions on the part of others, beyond the walls of correctional centres. Stronger partnerships between correctional staff and mental health providers will be essential.

My press conference was followed by a news conference of community partners, which included a representative of the Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA). Penny Marrett, CEO of CMHA, said that “correctional systems are being forced to assume the burden of the country's failure to properly diagnose and care for those with mental illnesses and other mental health problems.” She went on to urge Minister McLellan,5 other elected officials, and the heads of correctional agencies, to ensure that mentally ill prisoners receive mental health services consistent with community standards of care, and to call for rules that prevent placing prisoners with mental illness in isolated confinement.

Office of the correctional investigator of canada



  • The Office of the Correctional Investigator (OCI) was established in 1973 under the federal Inquiries Act, and in November 1992, as part of the Corrections and Conditional Release Act, the OCI was entrenched into legislation.

  • The mandate of the Correctional Investigator is to function as an ombudsman for federal offenders.

  • The Correctional Investigator is independent of the Correctional Service of Canada (CSC) and may initiate an investigation on receipt of a complaint by or on behalf of an offender, at the request of the federal minister or on his own initiative.

  • The OCI also has a responsibility to review and make recommendations on the Correctional Service of Canada’s policies and procedures associated with individual complaints.

  • In this way, systemic areas of concern can be identified and appropriately addressed. The Correctional Investigator is required by legislation to report annually, through the Minister of Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness Canada, to both houses of parliament (i.e., the House of Commons and the Senate).

About the Author

Mr. Sapers is the Correctional Investigator of Canada and Federal Prison Ombudsman
After the tabling of his Annual Report 2004-05, Howard Sapers, Correctional Investigator, told reporters that “Canadian prisons have become warehouses for the mentally ill.”

  1. Correctional Investigator of Canada. Annual Report 2003-04. Retrieved March 20, 2006, at www.oci-bec. e.asp

  2. Correctional Service of Canada. (2004). A Health Care Needs Assessment of Federal Inmates in Canada. Canadian Journal of Public Health, 95(Suppl. 1). Retrieved March 20, 2006, at archives/CJPH_95_Suppl_ 1_e.pdf.

  3. Correctional Investigator of Canada. Annual Report 2004-05. Retrieved March 20, 2006, at www.oci-bec. download_e.asp.

  4. Standing Senate Committee on Social Affairs, Science and Technology. (2004, November). Mental Health, Mental Illness and Addiction: Overview of Policies and Programs in Canada. Retrieved March 20, 2006, at www. commbus/senate/com-e/ soci-e/rep-e/report1/ repintnov04vol1-e.pdf.

  5. Anne McLellan was Minister of Public Safety under the Liberal government at that time. The current Minister of Public Safety is Stockwell Day.

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