Prison reform needed to prevent in-custody deaths: ombudsman

NationalPost.com – News – A new report from Canada’s prison watchdog recommends federal penitentiaries start providing around-the-clock health care for inmates to prevent unnecessary deaths in custody.
Wednesday, Sept. 8, 2010.   Janice Tibbetts, Postmedia News

OTTAWA — A new report from Canada’s prison watchdog recommends federal penitentiaries start providing around-the-clock health care for inmates to prevent unnecessary deaths in custody.

Ombudsman Howard Sapers concluded: “Security concerns still trump clinical interventions” in federal prisons.

He details nine deaths in custody, including a man who died of a brain aneurysm after staff mistook his medical emergency for mental health problems, and another who killed himself, after repeated warning signs of suicidal behaviour while in custody.

Mr. Sapers told a news conference the prison system has been slow to respond to his recommendations, including a key one that prolonged solitary confinement be banned for prisoners with mental health problems.

He also said the Conservative government’s plan to put more people in prison and keep them there longer will only exacerbate ongoing problems in prisons, which are already ill-equipped to ensure the well being of inmates.

For more than a year, Mr. Sapers has conducted quarterly reports on the prevention of deaths in federal custody. The report released on Wednesday was his fourth and last assessment on the topic.

He did the reviews to determine how well the correctional service is responding to a 2007 study on in-custody deaths and a 2008 report he issued about the death of Ashley Smith while in custody at a Kitchener, Ont., prison.

Mr. Sapers found Smith, 19, had failed to receive adequate mental health services and was placed in segregation for the entire year she was in custody.

Mr. Sapers said since Smith died in October 2007, another 130 inmates have died in custody.

Among the shortcomings that have been identified: a failure to recognize “suicide pre-indicators” among inmates; holding inmates with mental-health issues in isolation which made their medical problems even worse; and delays in responding to medical emergencies.

Mr. Sapers said he has chose nine cases — five suicides and four deaths from other causes — to highlight as examples so he can put a lens on the issue.

with files from Mark Kennedy

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