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When trouble is just one slip-up away...

Impulse control a full-time job: 'I get an idea and want to do it'

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 8/3/2011 (2355 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Staying out of jail has become a full-time job for Russ Hilsher.

The articulate, soft-spoken 33-year-old was diagnosed with fetal alcohol spectrum disorder as a baby, adopted at three months and in trouble with the law for most of his adulthood.

Russ Hilsher says his experience shows courts need to better understand the unique learning requirements of FASD sufferers.


Russ Hilsher says his experience shows courts need to better understand the unique learning requirements of FASD sufferers.

"I've been in jail since I turned 18, off and on, for the past 10 to 15 years," said Hilsher, who stole cars. "I get an idea and I want to do it."

People with FASD are far more likely to get in trouble with the law and end up incarcerated. One recent study at the Stony Mountain Institution, where experts screened and diagnosed almost 100 inmates, found that 10 per cent had FASD, ten times the rate in the general population. Another 18 per cent were on the "possible FASD" list.

But there are virtually no specialized services for people with FASD in provincial jails or federal prisons -- no literacy courses, psychiatric care, drug treatment or rehabilitation programs tailored specifically to people with FASD who learn much differently from people with normal brain functions. Inmates with FASD tend to get lumped in with mentally ill inmates even though FASD is more akin to a brain injury than bipolar disease.

Corrections Canada said corrections staff at Stony are trained to deal with people with a variety of behavioural and learning disabilities such as FASD and are able to tailor existing programs to meet an inmate's needs.

Corrections officers working in the provincial system say most Manitoba jails are so overcrowded that there's simply not enough classroom or meeting space for regular programs, let alone those specializing in FASD.

Hilsher got more help with his disability outside of prison than inside.

He receives 42 hours a week of support from the Mennonite Central Committee, which has an FASD outreach program, and he works four hours a day, four days a week as an office assistant at the Manitoba First Nations Education Resource Centre.

"For me it's a place I can come to and feel a part of," said Hilsher. "Here it feels like my FASD disappears."

He's learned about his condition and the three things he needs to stay out of jail: routine, structure and support.

Hilsher doesn't take the bus to his job, for instance. Instead, he's driven to and from work to avoid distractions.

Last summer, he was living in a halfway house and breached one of the conditions of his probation -- drinking. His lawyer had asked that he be allowed to drink in his own home, but was turned down. When Hilsher was caught drinking, he was taken back to jail.

"The courts really need to understand. With that impulsivity, you're just setting them up for breaches."

Now he no longer drinks.

"I'm still in the process of learning that it does nothing for me... It gets me in trouble."

Read more by Carol Sanders and Mary Agnes Welch.


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