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Treatment of Mentally Ill Prisoners

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Assignment 2: Treatment of Mentally Ill Prisoners

1.0 The Treatment of Mentally Ill Prisoners
The treatment of mentally ill inmates has been not only a public concern, but has also been identified by Canada’s Correctional Investigator, Howard Sapers as an issue of concern in his 2014 report to parliament. Between 1997 and 2007, offenders entering the prison system with a mental disorder grew 71% in men and 61% in women (Canadian Mental Health Association, 2012). The problem at hand is that correctional institutes and their staff are not widely trained to deal with inmates who suffer from mental disorders. The result then, is that use-of-force interventions, and placement in solitary confinement, often for extended periods of time, are used as methods of dealing with unruly behaviours exhibited by these mentally ill offenders. While there are various issues surrounding mental health in the Canadian judicial system, for the purpose of this report, the discussion will be focused around inadequate methods for dealing with behaviours presented by these inmates, namely by use-of-force and solitary confinement

1.1 Use-Of-Force Techniques In Sapers 2014 report, it is reported that “28% of all use of force interventions involved an offender with a mental health concern as identified by the Correctional Service of Canada (CSC)” (Ministry of Public Safety, 2014). This is likely due to the fact that mentally ill inmates are more likely to self-harm, have unpredictable behaviour, and have more trouble complying with rules. Further to this, “The use of pepper spray in nearly 60.4% of all use of force incidents reviewed suggests an increasing reliance on security-driven responses to behaviours that are often associated with mental illness” (Ministry of Public Safety, 2014).

1.2 Solitary Confinement Earlier this year, in January, a class action lawsuit was filed against the federal government over the treatment of mentally ill inmates, citing that solitary confinement is being relied heavily upon as a way to deal with these inmates. Inmates placed in solitary confinement spend 23 hours a day in a small, 2.6-3.6 meter cell, where the only form of communication is through a slot in the door (White, 2015). Commonly referred to in the Canadian system as “segregation”, there are currently 1,800 inmates held in segregation on any given day in Canada (Fine, White, 2015). While countries like the US and the UK have been moving away from this practice due to the psychological harm it induces, Canada has seen an increase in usage, up 6.2% in the five years leading up to 2013 (Fine, White, 2015). Sapers 2014 report also states that there is a disproportionate number of mentally ill inmates who end up in solitary confinement and that the practice in itself is a risk factor for suicide (Ministry of Public Safety, 2014).

Edward Snowshoe, a 24 years old inmate who had been diagnosed with multiple mental illnesses, committed suicide, while being held in long-term solitary confinement. The case became very publicly discussed in the years after his death in 2010. Before his death, he had spent 162 days in solitary confinement, denying to even leave during his one hour of daily recreation time.

2.0 Correctional Service of Canada versus Experts

After a ten year stand in office, the Conservative Party of Canada ended their reign with the election of Liberal Party leader, Justin Trudeau in 2015. Trudeau seems to be making changes with respect to long-term solitary confinement, mandating changes in the restriction of use of long-term solitary confinement and treatment of mentally ill inmates (White, 2015). Previous to this however, inaction by the government had become a cause of concern for prison policy experts, and even some extensions of government, as outlined in Howard Sapers, Canada’s Correctional Investigator, 2014 report.

2.1 Correctional Service of Canada
The Correctional Service of Canada (CSC) is a federal government agency responsible for those offenders serving a minimum two-year sentence. They are “responsible for managing institutions of various security levels and supervising offenders under conditional release in the community” (Government of Canada, n.d.). Changes made to regulations surrounding the treatment of inmates, including practices and procedures, are decided and enforced by this government agency. They have come under pressure from various groups in recent years, following the high profile cases of the death of two mentally ill inmates kept in solitary confinement, Ashley Smith, and Edward Snowshoe. Both of these individuals committed suicide after being kept in solitary confinement for extended periods of time. Following the coroner’s inquest into the death of Ashley Smith, over 100 recommendations for improvement of mental health care for prisoners were suggested. The agency rejected or ignored all but four of them (Wingrove, 2014). Even though the agency acknowledged that placing prisoners in long term solitary confinement was against “healthy living”, they still rejected the recommendations to set limits on consecutive days allowed, and total days per year an inmate can be kept in isolation (Quan, 2014). The CSC reported they could not support the recommendations “without causing undue risk to the safe management of the federal correctional system” (as cited in Wingrove, 2014). Following mass pressures, the CSC eventually announced they are cutting back on the amount of prisoners held in solitary confinement, but not length of consecutive or total days allowed (White, 2015).

2.2 Expert Opinions Perhaps the most convincing point of view on solitary confinement comes from the United Nations. In 2011, a United Nations expert on torture called for all countries to “ban the use of solitary confinement of prisoners except in very exceptional circumstances and for as short a time as possible, with an absolute prohibition in the case of juveniles and people with mental disabilities” (Mendez, 2011). The UN expert also states that solitary confinement contradicts rehabilitation, which is the aim of the penitentiary system. The CSC is responsible for this part of incarceration in Canadian federal prisons. Lawyer James Sayce, is currently behind a class-action lawsuit filed in the Ontario courts that calls for better treatment of mentally ill inmates. He cites that solitary confinement only worsens their mental state and that prison staff are unqualified to deal with such inmates and therefore result to force and solitary confinement to contain and manage mentally ill prisoners. He alleges that the practice is considered cruel and unusual punishment and that the government is failing in their mandate to rehabilitate these prisoners.

3.0 Why This Issue is Important

The factors that contribute to the importance of this issue include the large proportion of mentally ill offenders in federal prisons, the call for Canada to ban solitary confinement, and the delayed and stubborn reaction from the Canadian government to mitigate the problem. If the role of federal penitentiaries is to rehabilitate prisoners so that they may someday become contributing, safe, members of society, they are grossly failing the mental ill population and subsequently further endangering the public. The practice of solitary confinement is considered in modern day to be a form of torture, and has been advised against by experts in psychology. Canada, which is a developed country should be better equipped to handle mentally ill prisoners and cease the use of torture-esque forms of punishment.

4.0 Recommended Position

The government should place a ban on solitary confinement, as suggested by the United Nations. Further to this, changes need to be made to the overall manner in which mentally ill prisoners are assessed and treated. The use of force punishment and solitary confinement is largely used due to mentally ill prisoner’s inability to function as rule-abiding inmates and so the government needs to implement plans to change this. Perhaps the solution lies in a separate penitentiary for severely mentally ill prisoners. Prison workers, in that case, should be hired based on an ability to effectively handle the differing psychological patterns of these inmates. A mental health action plan imposed by the federal government in 2014 outlines issues and areas of concentration for improving the current state of federal prisons, but the actions are vague and there is no specific plan set out which will likely result in a lengthily period of reform. Implementing changes about how mentally ill patients are handled in federal penitentiaries is particularly important for the rehabilitation of these prisoners and for this reason should go undergo massive reform.


Chaimowitz, G. (2011, November 23). The Treatment of Mental Illness in Correctional Setting. The Canadian Journal of Psychiatry, 57(1), 1-2. Retrieved from Academic Source Complete.

Fine, S., & White, P. (2015, November 13). Trudeau calls for ban on long-term solitary confinement in federal prisons. The Globe and Mail. Retrieved from

Government of Canada. (n.d.). Correctional Service of Canada. Retrieved February 21, from

Ministry of Public Safety. (2014, June 27). Annual Report of the Office of the Correctional Investigator 2013-2014. Retrieved February 21, 2016, from

Quan, D. (2014, December 11). Federal government rejects limit on prison segregation time, in its response to Ashley Smith inquest. The National Post. Retrieved from

The Canadian Press. (2015, July 17). Class action launched over treatment of mentally ill inmates in federal prisoners. CBC. Retrieved from

White, P. (2014, December 5). Confined: The Death of Eddie Snowshoe. The Globe and Mail. Retrieved from

White, P. (2015, December 23). Solitary confinement at federal prisons in decline: Correctional Service Canada. Retrieved from

Wingrove, J. (2014, December 16). Canadian government rejects solitary confinement limits. The Globe and Mail. Retrieved from

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