Sapers: 'Chronic self-injury' by mentally ill female inmates met with security response
Published Monday, September 30, 2013 10:46AM EDT
Last Updated Monday, September 30, 2013 8:30PM EDT
With the number of self-injury incidents among female inmates on the rise, a federal ombudsman says correctional services officials must treat these cases as mental health issues, not security concerns.
Correctional Investigator Howard Sapers released a report Monday on the condition of women who attempt to injure themselves behind bars on Monday -- the same day the warden in charge of the prison where troubled teen Ashley Smith killed herself testified at an inquest into her death.
Since Smith’s death, the number of self-injury incidents in federal penitentiaries has more than tripled, the report noted, with 901 incidents of recorded prison self-injury involving 264 offenders taking place in 2012-13.
“We’re seeing overwhelmingly chronic self-injury is being met with a security response,” Sapers told CTV’s Power Play on Monday.
“If a woman is self-harming in an institution right now, chances are that’s going to be responded to by correctional officers -- sometimes in full emergency response gear -- coming into the cell, using physical force, using handling, using pepper spray, using restraints and ultimately using segregation and isolation as a response to the self-injury,” he said.
Sapers said these measures don’t deal with the underlying symptoms of mental illness, and while it’s important to intervene immediately in cases of self-harm, he said what happens after the intervention is central to preventing future injuries.
Last year, 37 women in federal institutes were responsible for 300 incidents of self-injury. Of those women, Sapers said about 15 per cent are “significantly” mentally ill and hurt themselves on such a frequent basis that their needs can’t be met by Correctional Services Canada (CSC).
“We’re recommending a clinical treatment plan be developed for these women, and that they be moved into a forensic psychiatric facility where they will be dealt with as patients so they can have their health needs addressed,” he said.
He said CSC typically prefers to deal with these cases on their own, and the “rare” case will be referred to external psychiatric facilities.
“Their policy has to change, their attitude has to change,” Sapers said.
“If someone has a very complex, physical health need, that health need is not addressed in a prison health unit. That need is addressed in a hospital where it should be,” he said. “We’re saying the same thing needs to happen in psychiatric care for these very few, very complex, very ill individuals.”
The report notes that since 2005, the Correctional Service of Canada has spent approximately $90 million in new funding to strengthen mental health services, implement computerized mental health screening at admission, train front-line staff and improve community partnerships.
"Nevertheless, these initiatives have resulted in little substantive progress since the death of Ashley Smith in October 2007 with respect to the management and treatment of chronic self-injurious women in federal custody,” the report states. "A number of key policy, capacity, operational and infrastructure challenges remain."
Correctional Service spokeswoman Sara Parkes told The Canadian Press Monday that the agency was reviewing the findings and recommendations.
Public Safety Minister Steven Blaney was not available to discuss specific recommendations in Sapers' report on Monday, but said in a statement that: "Prisons are not the appropriate place to treat those with serious mental illness."
With files from The Canadian Press