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Ontario Solicitor-General Sylvia Jones described the new beds as part of the province’s ongoing efforts to improve mental-health resources in corrections settings.Chris Young/The Canadian Press

The Ontario government will spend $3.5-million to create a five-bed hospital unit for female inmates with severe mental illness.

Thursday’s announcement comes weeks after a report from the province’s Auditor-General criticized a severe shortage of specialized beds for a rising number of female inmates struggling with mental-health issues, which resulted in many inmates being confined to segregation.

The new beds will be located at the Ontario Shores Centre for Mental Health Sciences in Whitby. The centre already has a forensic unit that treats patients who have been deemed not criminally responsible due to a mental illness, and conducts psychiatric assessments on people awaiting trial. The new beds will be available to any inmate at the Vanier Centre for Women, in Milton, Ont., deemed to require intensive, hospital care.

That kind of care is in short supply in the province, especially for female inmates, the Auditor-General’s report noted. According to the December report, half of the women admitted to custody in the province in the past year had a mental-health alert on file – a percentage that has more than doubled in 15 years. However, nine institutions that house female inmates have no specialized mental-health beds, and another six have only 48 beds in total, despite those six receiving an average of 379 patients with mental-health issues flagged on their files.

“These challenges are not new, they are historic,” said Ontario Solicitor-General Sylvia Jones, in an interview after the announcement. She described the new beds as part of the province’s ongoing efforts to improve mental-health resources in corrections settings. In the past year, she said, the province has increased the number of social workers and mental-health staff at institutions, and created a wellness training program for corrections officers.

The Auditor-General’s report also identified those issues as areas of concern, pointing out that only half of the province’s corrections facilities had access to a psychologist. It recommended that the corrections staff receive more mental-health training, both to help their own workplace stress and to respond more effectively to inmates with severe mental-health symptoms, such as psychosis. Without training and appropriate mental health units, the report noted, “these inmates are often sent to segregation as a result of their behaviour.”

The secured unit at Ontario Shores is designed to stabilize patients and create treatment plans, while providing assessment and therapy, as well as Indigenous-specific care, on a short-term basis. It is expected to be up and running by late next year, but in the meantime, the hospital will accept female inmates into their existing assessment unit as early as next month.

Ms. Jones suggested that the five beds will “make an immediate difference,” by allowing a new treatment option for acutely ill inmates. She said the announcement is part of ongoing efforts by the province to improve access to mental-health care in corrections institutions. The Auditor-General called this a necessary step to improve outcomes for inmates when they are eventually released.

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