Ontario Corrections Officers Get Mental Health Training

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This won’t be the first time you’ll hear criminality and mental health be put together in an article. It’s a narrative we often hear, but one that is often stigmatized and misunderstood. A disproportionate number of inmates do suffer from a mental illness, but often the reasons why they are incarcerated is from a lack of mental health community care in Ontario. Since the deinstitutionalization of mental health care that began in the 70’s and continued into the late 90’s, correctional facilities have seen a spike in incarceration rates – basically meaning that fewer psychiatric hospital beds means more prison bunks, and prisons have not proven to be good treatment centres.

So what is being done to help these inmates living with mental illness? The Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) just finished a training program for more than 5,000 correctional officers that focused on mental health and addictions. The ambitious program looks at inmates’ mental health, including issues related to trauma, vulnerable populations (i.e. women, aboriginal, LGBTQ+, etc.) the impact of punitive measures, and other key aspects that have been detrimental to prison populations.

Provincial corrections facilities often house prisoners with sentences that are less than two years, meaning that high turnover requires a response to mental wellness that is both efficient and time sensitive. For those prisoners who have pre-existing conditions, it is integral that they continue treatment. CAMH also implemented a mental health screening program, as many people entering the system will not have obvious symptoms of mental illness, or have seen a specialist prior to being arrested.

The Ministry of Community Safety and Correctional Services (MCSCS) has been looking at ways to improve care of incarcerated individuals because of this spike, and partnering with CAMH is just one step they’ve made.  

A task force was started for the Ottawa-Carleton Detention Centre in response to overcrowding so bad that some inmates had to sleep on mattresses in the shower. This detention centre is just one of many provincial correctional facilities that houses people for two years or less; many of which are awaiting trial or bail hearings. The OCDC task force recently finished a report based on their findings, and came to many conclusions that were based on inmates suffering from mental health issues.  

According to this report, among male prisoners in Ontario correctional facilities, those with a mental health alert increased from 10 per cent in 2005-2006, to 22 per cent in 2014-2015; for females the increase was from 18 per cent to 50. While the report does note that “alerts do not mean there has been a diagnosed mental illness,” it might come into significance if CAMH’s mental health screening process finds more people do require diagnosis and further care. The report also recommended that people with mental illness should not be in correctional facilities, and that courts should not impose bail conditions that criminalize symptoms of mental illness.

While this is a crucial recommendation, it is out of MCSCS’s power to do anything in this regard: it is a judiciary decision when it comes to who gets bail, so changes will have to come from them.

“While the new training is a crucial and laudable step,” said Graham Brown, policy analyst at the John Howard Society of Ontario, “Comprehensive solutions will not materialize until we begin connecting people with mental health issues to treatment rather than punishment.”

The John Howard Society has been instrumental in vocalizing need for better care of inmates with mental illness. They released a report in 2015 titled Unlocking Change, which detailed recommendations that would better serve people with mental illness in the prison system. There main recommendation was also that people with mental illness should not be incarcerated.

“A prevention-based approach would aim to help Ontarians with mental health issues before they become at risk-of homelessness, crisis, unemployment or conflict with the law.” Said Brown.

There is also a vicious cycle within the system where offenders experiencing addictions issues will often leave the system only to return. CAMH has embarked on a national initiative to help curb this problem. With this particular mental health and addictions problem, it comes down to a need for a general paradigm shift in the way we see criminality, illness, and health institutions.

The new training will help corrections facilities treat people with mental illness, but it won’t be a prevention-based approach. This approach would have to go beyond MCSCS into better provincial healthcare, more affordable housing, and increased job opportunities for people with psychiatric disabilities.  

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