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Why Canada's prisons can't cope with flood of mentally ill inmates Add to ...

The "headbanger" arrived in a police van and wasted little time in earning his nickname. "He would just dive at walls and doors," smashing into them head-first, Janet Gauthier recalls.

"It is a very traumatic experience," she adds. "There are cases here that would confound any psychiatric facility."

But the Maplehurst Correctional Complex, where Ms. Gauthier is deputy superintendent, is not a psychiatric facility: The young schizophrenic is one of the thousands of mentally ill people flooding Canada's prisons.

"We try to learn from each one of them," Ms. Gauthier says, but the central lesson is simply that jail is an abysmal place to stuff the sick and demented.

The ritual is never-ending. Offenders who are often disoriented and babbling are disgorged at prison gates, leaving harried staff to gauge how dangerous they are and place them where they are least likely to run afoul of tougher inmates or try to take their own lives.

The mind-bending isolation of a segregation cell brings no peace to a depressed or unhinged mind. Nor does an environment of slamming cell doors, fear and intimidation. Behind bars, effective treatment is rarely more than a promise while reality is a severe shortage of psychiatric professionals and a patient population so diverse it can explode if different kinds of inmate mix.

The cost to society is immense. After clogging cell blocks for months or years, untreated prisoners often are released only to get into trouble all over again.

Recent figures indicate that nearly 35 per cent of the 13,300 inmates in federal penitentiaries have a mental impairment requiring treatment - triple the estimated total as recently as 2004, and far higher than the incidence of mental illness in the general population.

"The numbers are staggering," says Correctional Investigator Howard Sapers, whose office oversees the operations of Correctional Services Canada (CSC).

Yet, even as correctional officials appeal for saner strategies, the federal government's much-publicized policies designed to get tough on crime are pouring thousands of new offenders into prisons that are already perilously overcrowded.

"It is a huge problem," Mr. Sapers says. "The pressures are going to be even more extreme."

In a report last fall, Mr. Sapers was unsparing in his criticism of CSC's long-term strategy for treating the mentally impaired more humanely and effectively. A recent infusion of $50-million represented a once-in-a-generation opportunity to shore up facilities for the mentally ill, but the money was mismanaged and poorly targeted, he wrote.

"Funding is delayed to such an extent that, at this pace, it could easily take decades to fully implement."

Public Safety Minister Vic Toews, the government's law-and-order point man, declined to comment on the situation this week, but CSC spokesman Suzanne Leclerc says the new laws will bloat the system with 4,500 new inmates by 2014.

Thus far, the government has committed $600-million to create 2,552 beds to accommodate them, but Mr. Sapers says the new and renovated cells are "based on existing designs that are inadequate. We are not going to see more common space, more therapeutic space or more treatment capacity."

Jails are hard-wired to mete out punishment, not therapy, so the mentally impaired often go untreated, sometimes languishing in isolatation 23 hours a day.

Some correctional officials concede that the best they can do is limit the damage. "As long as there is a valid court order, we are required to admit them and take care of them," says Steve Small, assistant deputy minister of correctional and community services for Ontario. "We do our best, but there are certainly other locations that would be preferable for these types of inmates."



Cells on suicide watch

Less than an hour's drive west of Toronto, Maplehurst is a sprawling complex guarded by high fences and overhead mesh (designed to foil slingshot delivery of drugs to inmates in the exercise yard) that primarily houses offenders on trial or waiting out adjournments. About 200 of its 1,200 inmates have a serious mental impairment, including schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, brain injuries and the effects of fetal alcohol syndrome. Others suffer from dementia or low intelligence and a lack of coping skills. The most floridly psychotic inmates are kept under suicide watch in bunker-like cells.

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