Keeping the mentally ill out of solitary, and out of prison

Posted on in Health Debates – Opinion/Editorials – Hiring more professionals is a good step towards keeping mentally ill people out of solitary confinement, and out of prison entirely.
Dec. 19, 2016.   Editorial

It seems blindingly obvious. The mentally ill should not be held in solitary confinement, which only exacerbates their symptoms and anguish. They need medical attention.

But medical facilities and professionals have been in such short supply in both federal and provincial prisons that those with mental health issues are often held in solitary because prison staff don’t know what else to do with them.

Indeed, figures obtained by the Ontario Human Rights Commission from a recent correctional services study found that a striking 38 per cent of those placed in solitary confinement over a three-month period between October and December 2015 had a “mental health alert” on file. And, sadly, the commission believes that actually understates the true percentage of mentally ill prisoners held in solitary.

So it’s welcome news that the province plans to hire 239 more staff for its 26 prisons to care for mentally ill prisoners, as well as taking steps to keep them out of prison, never mind solitary, in the first place.

Among the hires are much-needed mental health nurses, psychologists and social workers, as well as managers to track the cases of those in segregation. Their mandate is to reduce the use of solitary, the amount of time inmates spend in segregation when they are placed there, and to ensure that prisoners get the support they need when they are returned to the general prison population.

The announcement came just two weeks before former federal corrections watchdog Howard Sapers is set to begin a review of the use of solitary confinement in provincial prisons. In the past he has called for a complete ban on the isolation of mentally ill inmates, as has Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

One of the ways to achieve that goal is to keep mentally ill people out of prisons in the first place. Admirably, many of the measures announced last week appear aimed at precisely that. Among them:

– Helping the mentally ill reintegrate into the community when they are released from prison to reduce the likelihood of them reoffending.
– Providing additional court support staff to work with mentally ill people and try to keep them out of prisons.
– Funding psychiatric beds for acutely ill inmates in Toronto and Hamilton whose needs are too complex for general hospitals so they won’t end up in solitary.
– Expanding the availability of “safe beds” that provide emergency housing and high intensity care for people experiencing a mental health crisis to keep them out of hospitals, never mind jail.

These are all overdue steps that have a good chance of not only keeping mentally ill people out of solitary, but making sure they avoid prison entirely.

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This entry was posted on Monday, December 19th, 2016 at 10:43 am and is filed under Health Debates. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

One Response to “Keeping the mentally ill out of solitary, and out of prison”

  1. Letter to the Editor

    Re: Keeping the mentally ill out of solitary and out of prison.

    A strong political voice is essential with respect to legislation at the provincial and federal level of government that should only permit the segregation of mentally ill inmates as a last resort.
    However, in spite of mental health issues in our society reaching an all-time high the trend by policy decision-makers has been to slash correctional budgets and mental health programs.
    The ideal situation would be that judges would consider the sentencing of mentally ill individuals to prison as a non-viable option. However, incarceration could potentially provide the opportunity for intervention if proper programs were in place.
    This could ultimately reduce overall costs in terms of health care and re-incarnation. Delays by government that results in inmates waiting weeks or even months for necessary treatment……along with deficiencies in the training of prison employees in relation to mentally ill inmates are moving us backwards…….to an asylum state.
    There is an to much of an assumed focus on incarnation as an opportunity for rehabilitation. The current stand down approach by government regarding mental health care of inmates is not only cost-ineffective it also expedites harm.

    We can do so much better, we just have to decide with we want to.
    Sherrie Fraser


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