If there’s one guy in Ottawa who must be sitting in the corner playing his lips like a Jew’s harp these days, it would be Howard Sapers. Every year for the past four, Canada’s Correctional Investigator has sounded a clarion alarm over the treatment of mentally ill prisoners in federal penitentiaries. His annual reports to Parliament read like a skipping record. Too many mentally ill Canadians being held in facilities without treatment. Too many mentally ill Canadians in segregation cells. Too many mentally ill Canadians being released from prison without community or mental health support. Not enough dedicated mental health services for mentally ill prisoners. The government’s response to these warnings have been as swift as they were predictable.
In March, the federal juggernaut ramrodded its omnibus “tough on crime” bill through parliament – despite the warnings of numerous provincial mental health agencies. These agencies expressed a unified concern that the legislation would put more mentally ill Canadians – including children as young as 14 – behind bars for longer periods than ever before. Their warnings were summarily dismissed as soft on crime.
Two weeks later, the government released its new budget, including $300 million in cuts to Corrections Canada. If Sapers wondered how those cuts might affect the most vulnerable segment of the prison population, it wouldn’t be long before he got an answer. In April, the government announced the closure of Ontario’s only penitentiary dedicated to mental health treatment. When questioned regarding its strategy for the future care of the hundreds of severely mentally ill prisoners housed there, a spokesperson for the Public Safety Minister said that they would “find room for them” somewhere. That’s language that Sapers is familiar with. According to his 2010/2011 report to Parliament, that ubiquitous “somewhere” may well include a double-bunked segregation cell with a serial killer. The response of the Public Safety Minister’s office to this criticism is that double-bunking is an acceptable standard, and that burying prisoners alive in segregation cells is how a conservative society holds them accountable for their actions. And as the well-documented suicide of 19-year-old Ashley Smith teaches, nothing says inmate accountability like self-asphyxiation.
Thankfully, some mentally ill prisoners still have family members, friends, or community contacts still willing to visit them or accept a phone call. Often these connections serve as a documented lifeline for those already living in that no man’s land between suicide and the will to live one more day. All of which turns the government’s latest strategy for mentally ill prisoners into a particularly cynical coup de grace.
This month, Public Safety Minister Vic Toews announced that his government will shave a third off of the .86¢ per hour stipend that inmates receive for their work in the prison industry shops, while simultaneously adding a $2 “surcharge” to every inmate phone call. Putting aside the fact that Canada’s inmate telephone system is already the most expensive form of telecommunications in the country, this latest development virtually guarantees that mentally ill prisoners will be completely severed from the land of the living.
But if there is one thing more likely to snap the Sapers’ last twig of sanity than any other, landing the Correctional Investigator in the same sort of Cuckoo’s nest he has so conscientiously advocated for others, it may be the release this month of the government’s national mental health care strategy.
“This is a side people don’t recognize in the Prime Minister, this human compassionate side,” says Conservative Senator Marjorie LeBreton in a recent Globe & Mail article. For instance, in 2010, Mr. Harper – a self-described hockey fanatic – met in private with former NHL player Luke Richardson and his wife Stephanie to express his condolences after the suicide of their 14-year-old daughter. Unfortunately for Canada’s leader, such private moments of humanity are often swallowed up by his government’s very public policies – such as the newly minted legislation that will see the same 14-year-old children tried and sentenced as adults.
“I’m in the cabinet, that’s where I work,” says federal Labour Minister Lisa Raitt in the same Globe article. Eight years ago, after the birth of her second son, Raitt fell into a postpartum depression that affected her ability to work as a high-powered Toronto lawyer. On her drive to the office one day, she heard an Aril Lavigne song on the radio and couldn’t stop crying. “I knew there was a problem.”
These days Raitt speaks openly about her recovery and a health regime that once included medication and therapy. In the end, going back to work proved to be her refuge. “I weighed whether or not I would be stigmatized about talking about it. But my workplace has a culture that is open to a discussion of the matter. I don’t think a lot of people would expect that.” Even fuzzier is how open she and her cabinet colleagues are to discussion when that mental illness also brings on criminal charges.
“The head psychiatrist at the hospital in Nelson, B.C. told me that in a case like my daughter’s, her only future was jail or suicide. In the end, she accomplished both,” says Don Leach. His daughter, Linda, suffered from severe schizophrenia. At his blog theravensnest.ca, Leach describes, with an attention to detail that only an anguished parent could, the rolling tragedy that was his daughter’s life. “It was sick,” he says. “One time they threw her out of the hospital and into the street, where she laid in a hospital gown for days until the police came and arrested her.” After a decade of trench warfare, Ms. Leach finally lost the battle to her illness in 2010. She was 21-years-old. And while the certificate said suicide, it may just as well have said death by indifference. The life that Linda “Raven” Leach gave up was a life that nobody wanted. Her Dad wasn’t a hockey hero. She wasn’t a member of government. The only brightness in her story is that it didn’t end in a prison segregation cell. Because as Canadian taxpayers know, that could have really been pricey.