Canada's prisons are facing a growing crisis as they become the "institutions of last resort" for people with mental illnesses, the Canadian Psychiatric Association says.
"Corrections [Canada]is not geared to deal with some of the needs of a vast population of people with major mental illnesses," CPA board member Gary Chaimowitz told The Globe and Mail.
Dr. Chaimowitz will be on Parliament Hill Wednesday morning to ask the federal government to improve prison services for mentally ill offenders.
More than one in 10 men and nearly one in three women held in federal prisons have mental-health problems, according to 2009 figures from the Correctional Service of Canada. Those numbers represent a near-doubling in the total proportion of inmates with mental illnesses between 1997 and 2009.
"Psychiatric institutions have been closing over the years, and the mentally ill … have now found that the correctional system has become the institution of last resort," Dr. Chaimowitz said.
He said those prisoners often end up in segregation units and without adequate treatment because the prisons don't have the staff or resources to properly care for them.
The problem could intensify once the omnibus crime bill becomes law, Dr. Chaimowitz added. The legislation, which includes new provisions for mandatory minimum sentences, is expected to significantly increase the number of people in prison.
The Conservative government says it is expanding prison space and staff to accommodate the anticipated growth.
But some mental health advocates had hoped to see specific provisions in the legislation to deal with treatment for mentally ill inmates. The Canadian Council of Criminal Defence Lawyers asked MPs to change the bill to allow judges to exempt some mentally ill offenders from mandatory minimum sentences.
Liberal justice critic Irwin Cotler suggested the amendment during a clause-by-clause review of the bill last month, but his proposal was rejected by the Conservative-dominated committee.
Asked last week whether his government would bring in a new bill to address sentencing for mentally ill offenders, Justice Minister Rob Nicholson referred instead to treatment programs at the provincial level.
"We work with our provincial counterparts who have the first responsibility with respect to health care and getting assistance," he told reporters.
Dr. Chaimowitz said he wants the government to work with psychiatrists and the provinces to develop a strategy for mental health in prisons. The organization is also asking for closer monitoring of mentally ill inmates in segregation and for new inmates to be screened on admission and offered a treatment plan if needed.
"This is a first world country, but some of the conditions in which the mentally ill are housed or live in [within]the correctional system can be appalling," Dr. Chaimowitz said.