Canadian prisons must track mentally disordered inmates, advocates say
TheStar.com – news/canada
Published on Sunday July 08, 2012. Jesse McLean , Staff Reporter
Canada’s prison bosses don’t know how many federal inmates have been diagnosed with mental health problems.
The Correctional Service of Canada has no system-wide tracking of prisoners with mental health issues, despite recent research indicating their numbers have roughly doubled since 1997.
Give that there’s no firm grasp of the problem, prisoner rights advocates are questioning the federal government’s planning behind the prison system’s multi-million-dollar mental health strategy.
“This means that their much-touted mental health strategy is based on a very thin research foundation. How can you have a strategy if you don’t even know who it needs to address?” said Renu Mandhane, director of International Human Rights Program at the University of Toronto’s law faculty.
Without the baseline information of how many prisoners are diagnosed with specific mental health problems, Mandhane said the government can’t develop effective treatment programs or measure whether they’re successful.
“I feel like that most basic question is not even probed,” said Mandhane. “Anyone who does policy knows the best policy has a solid research foundation.”
The Correctional Service of Canada, however, says it has plenty of information to work with.
Since its mental health strategy was approved in 2004, tens of millions of dollars have been spent on treatment services and initiatives, and it’s developed screening and tracking systems.
A voluntary screening system flags newly sentenced prisoners to be further assessed for mental health problems. At intake, nearly 30 per cent of new female prisoners are self-identified as having mental health problems, according to correctional services.
A recently launched mental health tracking system keeps count of the number of services accessed by prisoners. So far, close to half of all inmates have used mental health services.
“Over time, as more data is entered, it will provide more comprehensive information on offenders’ level of need,” said CSC spokeswoman Suzanne Leclerc.
Leclerc added that the service has “significant research” on the prevalence of mental health problems within Canada’s prisons.
“These studies are sufficient in having a comprehensive understanding of the needs of this population and to design a mental health services delivery system,” she said.
However, Mandhane criticized the data presented by correctional services as “smoke and mirrors” that “doesn’t really address the key point, which is simply: who is in your population and how are you developing effective policies to serve them?”
The screening system is limited, she said, as it takes only a snapshot of new prisoners entering the penitentiaries and doesn’t take account for offenders already serving long-term sentences or for mental illnesses that prisoners may develop during incarceration.
Tracking the mental health services accessed by prisoners doesn’t provide an accurate portrait of the problem, Mandhane said. “Offenders are always working towards parole, and part of that is showing integration, and part of how you do that is taking programs.”
A solution, she suggests, would be to make the prisoner’s health files electronic and searchable. This way, the government could track inmates diagnosed with mental health problems throughout their incarceration, as well as determine what programs are successful and where the prisons’ limited resources can be best allocated.
CSC said it’s seeking “opportunities to establish an electronic health record,” but in the meantime will rely on the data it already collects.
Mandhane came across the absence of a system to monitor mentally disordered prisoners indirectly — she had requested records to support research done by her human rights program on the mistreatment of mentally ill female prisoners and found there were none.
Kim Pate, a longtime inmate rights advocate, said the lack of meaningful record-keeping makes it difficult for watchdogs and advocacy groups to do their work.
“This is all information that presumably the public should know about,” said Pate, executive director of the Canadian Association of Elizabeth Fry Societies, a group that supports women and girls in the justice system.
“It speaks of a need for greater accountability.”
< http://www.thestar.com/news/canada/article/1222861–canadian-prisons-must-track-mentally-disordered-inmates-advocates-say >