OTTAWA — The federal prison watchdog says Corrections Canada must stop isolating mentally ill, suicidal or self-harming prisoners, saying inmates in segregation units are all too easily able to kill themselves.
In a scathing report released on World Suicide Prevention Day, Howard Sapers says almost half of the suicides reviewed by the Office of the Correctional Investigator took place in segregation cells supposedly under close monitoring.
Sapers’ office examined 30 suicides in federal penitentiaries between April 2011 and March 2014.
Twenty-five of those prisoners hanged themselves, 14 of them while they were in solitary confinement. Only one of those 14 was being “actively managed” under suicide watch at the time, the report found.
Nineteen of the 25 prisoners who hanged themselves had previously attempted suicide; seven of them had tried to kill themselves more than twice.
Some had expressed a desire to kill themselves but were regarded by Corrections staff as being “manipulative,” the report found.
“I am concerned that Correctional Service Canada continues to rely on long-term segregation placements as a means to manage symptoms or behaviours associated with mental illness, suicidal ideation or self-harming,” Sapers said in a statement accompanying the release of the report.
“This practice is unsafe and should be expressly prohibited.”
Sapers urged more rigorous screening of high-risk prisoners, better information sharing and more timely access to mental health services.
Jason Tamming, a spokesman for Public Safety Minister Steve Blaney, said the government has “acknowledged” Saper’s report.
“At all times, our thoughts are with the victims of crime,” he said in an email.
“Our Conservative government believes that convicted criminals belong behind bars and that a prison is not always the most appropriate place to treat those with severe mental illness.”
That’s why, he added, Blaney recently announced a mental health action plan for federal offenders, something Tamming said “will ensure that the correctional system can effectively correct criminal behaviour.”
There was no specific mention made of any of the report’s harshest criticisms, including its observations that several prisoners were able to kill themselves in high-surveillance areas of various Canadian federal prisons.
The report found that there are still “dangerous in-cell suspension points accessible to inmates, including in segregation units” despite a 2010 directive instructing prisons to remove from cells things like shelving, electrical outlets and air vents that can facilitate hanging.
One inmate took his own life by hanging himself from the corner of a smoke detector — just one of a “multitude of suspension points” in his cell, according to investigators.
“It is difficult to comprehend why some of these cells are still in use for segregated inmates, especially in some of the older institutions,” the report reads.
“The CSC must account for why it continues to accept such a high degree of organizational risk, one that gives potentially suicidal inmates placed in segregation access to the means (and opportunity) to take their life.”
The report also pointed to problems with the investigative process after inmates die in prison. The practice of Corrections staff investigating other Corrections staff lacks “both functional and organization independence,” the report said.
“It is rare for CSC investigators to go the extra step to identify how the death might have been averted had staff acted or decided in a different manner,” it continued.
“Lessons learned and corrective measures from even a single suicide should have a lasting impact on the organization.”