The Correctional Investigator of Canada is disappointed that a pilot project announced by the federal government to provide more beds in mental health facilities for female prisoners with serious mental illnesses adds just two beds.

The project was announced Thursday, in response to a coroner's jury investigation into the 2007 prison death of Ashley Smith. She was the New Brunswick teen whose long experience in the prison system ended with her choking herself to death in a cell while guards looked on.

While the project is meant to test a new model of care, Correctional Investigator of Canada Howard Sapers says he's not sure why it's not a permanent project and why it's so small.

"I'm a little disappointed that it's only two beds and I'm a little disappointed that it's only a pilot project. It's not clear to me what we will learn from this that we don't already know about how to treat mentally ill women with these significant disorders," he told CTV's Canada AM from Ottawa Friday.

"But at least we have the commitment to go this far."

Sapers first began highlighting the needs of female offenders with mental illnesses a decade ago. While he calls the project "a very important first step," he says it's late in coming.

"It's significant that it's happening now in response to the coroner's jury. It's significant that it was an initiative announced by the (public safety) minister. But it is just a first step," he said.

The coroner's inquest into Smith's her death produced 104 recommendations aimed at improving the treatment of mentally troubled prisoners.

Sapers says his office investigated Smith's death back in June 2008, and made 16 recommendations – including the transfer of significantly mentally ill women to forensic treatment hospitals.

"So it's been a long time coming. But it is a good news announcement and we're told that there's more to come," he said.

The Public Safety Department says recent statistics show that 13 per cent of male offenders in federal custody, and 29 per cent of women in federal custody self-identified as having mental health needs.

Correctional Services Canada currently has just over 30 in-patient care beds available for mentally ill women in federal penitentiaries: 12 beds at L’Institut Philippe-Pinel de Montreal; and 20 beds at the Regional Psychiatric Centre in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. That works out to about one in-patient bed for every 20 federally incarcerated women.

CSC also has 664 in-patient beds for male offenders.

The one-year pilot project is due to start in the fall or winter at the Brockville Mental Health Centre. It will be aimed at women who have been sentenced to a penitentiary but are so ill that they can't cope well in prison, and, as Sapers points out, penitentiary staff can't cope with them either.

Their mental health progress and decisions about their discharge back into prison will be made based on medical criteria, not by prison staff.

Sapers says he thinks this is something that could have happened sooner, "but I think now, it's important to look ahead."

There's still much that remains to be done to improve the treatment of mentally ill prisoners, Sapers adds, ranging from awareness training, to building capacity to hiring more mental health professionals.

Most importantly of all, Sapers believes more needs to be done to divert mentally ill women from ever entering the criminal justice system.

"So with those who are very mentally ill, trying to deal with them before they get enmeshed in the criminal justice process," he says.


Among the recommendations from the coroner's jury looking into Ashley Smith's death:

-- That female inmates with serious mental health issues and/or self-injurious behaviour serve sentences in a treatment facility, not a security-focused prison-like environment.

-- That all female inmates be assessed by a psychologist within 72 hours of admission to any penitentiary or treatment facility to determine whether any mental health issues or self-injurious behaviours exists.

-- That there be adequate staffing of qualified mental health care providers with expertise and experience in place at every women's institution.

-- That all staff providing mental health care report and be accountable to health-care professionals, not security.

-- That indefinite solitary confinement be abolished, long-term segregation of more than 15 days be prohibited for female inmates, and the conditions of segregation be the least restrictive as possible.

-- That female inmates be accommodated in the region closest to their families and social supports.

-- That inmates who have experienced mental health issues within the corrections system be involved in training, planning, and policy development for mental health care for female inmates.

-- That Smith's experience within the correction system be taught as a case study to all Correctional Service management and staff at all levels.

With files from The Canadian Press