The Committee on the Rights of the Child knows how to punish. Will it examine prisoners with mental illness, too?

Analysis by Douglas MacCash, Matt McDonough and Rob Cameron The supermax prisons Canada has used for decades may not offer the best chance for prisoners who are mentally ill, or are deemed to have…

The Committee on the Rights of the Child knows how to punish. Will it examine prisoners with mental illness, too?

Analysis by Douglas MacCash, Matt McDonough and Rob Cameron

The supermax prisons Canada has used for decades may not offer the best chance for prisoners who are mentally ill, or are deemed to have a medical condition not readily apparent to their lawyers or to the guards (those at Grand Valley in Kitchener, Canada, have, for example, been known to lash out at “loose bodies”), to find a way to support themselves, other than in prison.

Legal sources and Amnesty International have told Human Rights Watch about prisoners in Grand Valley who have resorted to sleeping on the cold floor on days they are not given a mattress. These are people whose psychiatric and mental health conditions are so serious that in most cases they have not been able to receive a psychiatric assessment by a doctor who can safely evaluate their mental health needs.

Increasing access to psychotropic medications

Many of Canada’s supermax prisons have waiting lists for psychotropic medications. Even prisoners who are determined to have mental health needs that are self-evident can’t be given the medication needed to treat them safely and effectively.

With a review of the way Canadian prisons function scheduled for the fall, it is timely to consider these questions in the context of the mental health care system for inmates.

With a review of the way Canadian prisons function scheduled for the fall, it is timely to consider these questions in the context of the mental health care system for inmates.

Changing the way inmates are treated

In the review, the Committee will examine reforms to Canadian correctional and corrections policies and practices. It is recommended that federal correctional agencies and government ministers respect human rights and guard against over-incarceration. As part of these changes, it is important to make serious efforts to improve mental health care for all inmates.

Almost 1.4 million Canadians age 12 or older live with a mental health disorder. While 5 percent of Canadians suffer a major mental health issue, by far the most serious of these diseases affects one-in-four Canadians.

Currently, only 25 per cent of Canadians with mental illness experience any professional psychiatric assessment. Without appropriate care, one in five young people will be at risk of serious injury or death in their lifetime.

Our experience with the OCDC demonstrates the extreme degree to which this is so. Mental health conditions are common in those imprisoned in the Canadian system. Unavailability of treatment or medications has been a part of the treatment. Overcrowding and degrading conditions are equally accepted as part of the treatment regime.

Cases Human Rights Watch investigated at the Canada-US border included immigrants at the border who had been in detention for over a year without any meaningful trial. Canadians abroad and Canadian staff at our embassies and consulates have reported finding much greater numbers of Canadians held in the United States’ criminal justice system than in the Canadian system. Our job is to intervene and urge the United States and Canada to seek alternatives to incarceration, such as alternatives to detention for immigration purposes, or supported employment and housing for those detained by the US. We’re confident the Committee will agree.

Mexico, Central American States and the death penalty

In other areas in which there are underdeveloped human rights standards for people detained by governments, Canada can take particular responsibility.

In places with weak rights and due process guarantees, and in areas where the death penalty is practiced, Canada can become a safe haven for those seeking redress.

I am optimistic that the Committee will discuss in its review of Canada’s treatment of prisoners with disabilities (http://sites.google.com/site/acoprojustice/naqib_1218) its concerns about the Canadian government’s treatment of prisoners with disabilities.

We believe that the Committee’s decision to focus on prisoners with disabilities (https://acoprojustice.info/cjpreport) is relevant, because you will not find a more ill-equipped prison system in the world for those with disabilities. One need only look at the vast difference between the living conditions in Grand Valley and the (supermax prison) Asheby Correctional Centre, to see what a difference federal budgets can make.

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