Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Self-harming offenders don't belong in prison

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Kinew James, like Ashley Smith, entered Canada's corrections system when she was a teenager. But when a Kitchener judge attempted to draw parallels between the two in 2011, James bristled.

"All I hear is Ashley Smith, Ashley Smith," retorted James, who was then an inmate at Kitchener's Grand Valley Institution for Women, the women's prison where Smith strangled herself in a segregation cell in 2007.

"I want out of jail. I know I will get out," James declared in that May 2011 appearance in Kitchener's Ontario Court.

Her prophecy came partially true, but not in a way she would have imagined. In November 2012, she was transferred from the Kitchener prison to a federal psychiatric centre in Saskatoon. This past January, she was found dead in her cell there of an apparent heart attack.

She was 35.

In a highly critical report of female prisoners in Canada's federal prison system who cut, choke or otherwise do harm to themselves -- delivered Sept. 30 by Howard Sapers, Canada's correctional investigator -- James' voice is heard anew.

Prior to her death, she spoke to correctional investigators, with one stipulation: that they publicly acknowledge her.

In a rare move, they conceded, and James' comments on self-harming found in Sapers' report underscore the mental-health issues that trailed her through her years in the correctional system and provide sober evidence to underpin the correctional investigator's ongoing concern Canada's federal prison system is still "ill-equipped" to deal with female offenders like James.

While James ultimately ended up in a psychiatric facility, the very real question of whether she should have been in such a centre all along, instead of spending years in a prison, remains a very pertinent one.

Sapers' latest report has been delivered as testimony -- including that of the acting warden of the Grand Valley Institution -- continues at the ongoing coroner's inquest into Ashley Smith's death.

One of the most troubling findings in the report is the number of incidents of self-harm in federal penitentiaries has tripled since Smith killed herself in 2007 when she was 19.

And despite the almost $90 million in new funding the Correctional Service of Canada has spent since 2005 to improve mental-health services in prisons, those initiatives have resulted in "little substantive progress" since Smith's death in relation to managing and treating self-injuring women, the report boldly states.

Alarmingly, that management and treatment still manifests itself with "an overreliance" on such things as physical restraints, pepper spray and segregation, according to Sapers.

It was no surprise he once again affirmed "the most prolific" self-harming offenders don't belong in a federal prison and should be transferred to external psychiatric facilities where they can get the proper treatment and care.

What was surprising was a cryptic, terse response to Sapers' report by Public Safety Minister Steven Blaney, who said in a statement: "We believe that prisons are not the appropriate place to treat those with serious mental illness."

It's a sentiment we should all concur with.

But sentiment isn't the same as action, and as Sapers continues his invaluable advocacy on behalf of these troubled offenders, we can only hope Blaney's beliefs move to the next stage and are put into practice, so by the time the correctional investigator delivers his next report, we begin to see real progress in dealing with offenders with true mental-health issues beyond the confines of Canada's prisons.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 8, 2013 A7

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