Mental health services needed in prisons

Our current federal government is outspoken on its desire to be tough on crime.

Just a few weeks ago, a major crime bill was passed in the House of Commons that will impose mandatory minimum sentences for some crimes; is tough on young offenders; and some say favours incarceration over rehabilitation.

All of this may mean an influx of inmates into our prisons and this has the Canadian Psychiatric Association speaking out about mental health issues among prisoners.

I have written in the past about the high percentage of inmates with mental illness. In some correctional facilities, as many as half the inmates can be experiencing mental illness.

As a result of poorly planned deinstitutionalization in the past few decades, many mentally ill people are left to fend for themselves with insufficient hospital beds and a lack of properly funded community mental health services.

Our prisons now unfortunately serve as institutions for the mentally ill but are not set up to do this adequately. Many people are untreated and not equipped to handle a prison environment – as a result they often end up in segregation cells for long periods of time. Even when treatment is provided, fear of being seen as coercive can limit staff from encouraging the taking of medication.

Now, with a new crime bill likely to send many more to our prisons, there really needs to be a corresponding strategy for providing access to appropriate mental health services for those who need them. The CPA has released a position statement urging the government to address this issue.

If inmates are to successfully reintegrate into society upon their release, they must be able to address mental health issues. In order to ensure their ability to do so within a correctional setting, the CPA is calling on the government to take action.

In their position statement, the CPA recommends the government: screens inmates for mental illness and set up a treatment plan where necessary; enhance mental health services available in all correctional facilities; ensure prison staff members are appropriately trained to deal with psychiatric issues; and create separate units for inmates with severe mental illness who aren’t legally able to consent to treatment and are now often kept in segregation.

I believe it only makes sense to prop up a crime bill with the necessary supports to help as many individuals as possible be truly successful in exiting the criminal justice system able to function in society once more. If we can’t do that, we end up further marginalizing a segment of our population and in the meantime we spend a lot of tax dollars doing it.


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