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Saskatchewan Penitentiary in Prince Albert, Sask.: A new report says inmates prescriptions are being halted arbitrarily.

Thomas Porter/The Canadian Press

Abruptly stopping a prescription medication used to treat a mental illness is considered by both doctors and drug manufacturers to be dangerous and counterproductive. Which is why Ottawa needs to address the concerns of doctors in federal prisons who say they are often obliged to do this very thing to new inmates.

A report prepared by Canada's prisons ombudsman and obtained by The Globe and Mail reveals that doctors in the federal prison system are so overtaxed that many new inmates must wait 30 days or more for an assessment. In some cases, the doctors discontinue the new inmates' prescription medications until the assessment takes place.

"This practice effectively introduces interruptions in care and may be particularly inappropriate or unsafe for first-time federal offenders with a mental health condition," the report said.

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The report also said that prisoners transferred from a provincial jail or treatment centre are also subject to having their medications changed or halted, a practice the report called "dangerous in some cases."

Suddenly stopping or changing a person's treatment for a mental illness seems cruel. Doing so can not only bring on a return of unpleasant symptoms but also exacerbate them.

Furthermore, we know that Correctional Service Canada uses solitary confinement to manage prisoners whose mental-health issues cause them to act out – a much-condemned practice that can have tragic results. Forcing a stressed-out new inmate to give up his or her medication is just asking for trouble.

A spokesperson for Correctional Services Canada said "medication reconciliation" is a priority and must take place within 24 hours of admission, but prisoner advocates say they have been aware for years that this is not the case. The fact that CSC doctors have themselves acknowledged the issue must spur the federal government to fix the problem.

That means new inmates should be assessed within 72 hours, as the report recommends. Transferred inmates should never have their medications automatically altered or stopped. And the CSC should ensure that all the most basic and useful drugs are available when prison doctors want to prescribe them. Given the existing problems surrounding mentally ill people in federal prisons, it makes absolutely no sense for the CSC to knowingly allow practices that could exacerbate those problems.

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