Canada’s failing to prevent inmate suicides, watchdog finds

September 10, 2014 – Anna Mehler Paperny, Global News

Canada’s federal prisons are continuing practices known to make inmates more likely to kill themselves – and then failing to properly measure or report these suicides, a watchdog report finds.

Correctional Investigator Howard Sapersreviewed three years of suicides among federal inmates, releasing his report to coincide with World Suicide Prevention Day.

Sapers was prompted to conduct the review, he writes, “in light of a number of concerning developments that … suggest that progress has stalled in CSC’s efforts to prevent and publicly account for deaths in custody.”

Correctional Services of Canada said it’s “conducting a comprehensive review” of the report’s findings and recommendations. Spokesperson Jonathan Schofield noted in an email the department has “a national policy in place that specifically addresses suicide prevention and self-injury.” (Sapers refers to this policy in his report – but argues the federal prison system isn’t meeting its own expectations)

INVESTIGATION: Death Behind Bars

The report found that

  • Corrections Canada have stopped screening inmates for suicide risk when they move from provincial to federal custody; (Schofield wrote the department has “comprehensive screening processes at intake and throughout an inmate’s sentence”)
  • They’ve stopped releasing an annual review of inmate suicides; there’s still no shortage of places in jail cells from which inmates can hang themselves;
  • Many inmates kill themselves when they’re supposed to be under the greatest supervision: More than one in five inmate suicides take place in segregation or “segregation-like” conditions; more than one in 10 occurs in psychiatric facilities.
  • Despite ample evidence of the harm it causes, Corrections Canada keeps putting inmates with mental illness in solitary confinement. “Nearly all” inmates who’d killed themselves while in segregation “had known significant mental health issues,” the report finds. “Most were or had been referred and/or seen by mental health staff while on segregation status.”
  • What’s more, “the majority of segregated inmates had a history of previous suicide attempt(s), suicidal ideation and/or self-harming behaviour.”

READ MORE: Why are we putting sick people in solitary?

“Gaps in monitoring, response and information sharing are part of a series of persistent and known risks that continue to impede efforts to reduce preventable deaths in custody, including some suicides,” the report reads (emphasis original).

“A major impediment to progress appears to be the lack of immediate and substantive follow-up, especially dissemination of lessons learned.”

The department defended its practices as it has in the past, saying solitary confinement – called administrative segregation – “is a legislative measure available to CSC to help ensure the safety of all inmates, staff and visitors.” Schofield reiterated the department is reviewing Sapers’ recommendations.

But the suggestion to stop segregating severely sick inmates is hardly new: Sapers, rights groups and psychiatrists have been citing the harms of such a practice for years.

Corrections Canada has yet to respond to, much less act on, any of the more than 100 recommendations emanating from a coroner’s inquest into Ashley Smith’s death.

Smith strangled herself in her cell while prison guards watched. The inquest ruled her death a homicide.

And while Public Safety Minister Steven Blaney said in May he’d have responses by December, the department has since become much more circumspect about timing.

READ MORE: December? Later? Tories won’t say when they’ll respond to Ashley Smith recommendations

Inmates with mental illness are at a significantly higher risk of suicide, Saper’s report notes.

But as an extensive Global News investigation has found, Canada is failing its sickest offenders: Inmates are more likely to die and be assaulted in psychiatric prisons than any other federal institution, Global News found.

An inquest is pending into the death of Kinew James, who died in Saskatoon’sRegional Psychiatric Centre – the prison with the highest inmate death and assault rates in the federal system.

That’s also where Marlene Carter, who has a harrowing history of self-harm and suicide attempts, was kept for years – tied down to a bed, a board, a chair for so long her muscles atrophied. After narrowly escaping being declared a “dangerous offender,” Carter is now the first inmate in a pilot program to put the most mentally ill women inmates in a secure facility designed to treat them as patients who need to get better before reentering the community.

READ MORE: For some mentally ill inmates, solitary confinement by another name

Liberal corrections critic Wayne Easter said Sapers’ report is indicative of “a serious problem.”

“The Minister’s job is to look at the facts, look at them clearly and find a strategy to redress the problems. … Neither the Minister nor the management of CSC is taking seriously the reports that have been tabled in the past.”

Blaney refused last spring to speak with Global News about the plight of mentally ill inmates.

So did executive directors for psychiatric prisons in Saskatchewan and British Columbia (we were also denied tours of those facilities).

READ MORE: The interviews we didn’t get

And new policies indicate Corrections Canada is becoming even more secretive about how inmates die: Sapers’ report notes multiple missing reporting mechanisms, including the cessation of previous annual and quarterly reports and the lack of ” a performance monitoring and reporting framework that would serve to publicly account for its progress in preventing deaths in custody.”

In that same secretive vein, responses to a Global News access-to-information request this past spring censored information that had been public before.

It took weeks for Global News to get a response regarding the apparent policy change. We eventually received unredacted records.

This is what we received in response to an ATI request in the fall of 2013

causeofdeath sample 1

This is what we received in response to a near-identical ATI request, for updated numbers, in the spring of 2014

causeofdeath sample 2

The updated figures indicate the overwhelming majority of deaths and assaults continue to take place in psychiatric institutions.

And suicides, Sapers’ latest report finds, are the single greatest cause of unnatural death in custody.

“The issue,” the report reads, “is not that [CSC] lacks a suicide prevention strategy” – it just isn’t working.

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