Editorial: Prisons are not mental hospitals

A union official’s observation that jails and prisons have become the default mental-health facilities is nothing new, and that’s what so sad about it. We have known for years that mental illness lands too many people behind bars, where incarceration only makes their illnesses worse.

It’s a problem that won’t be solved by tinkering about the edges.

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Last July, Matthew Kalin Brenner, who suffered from addictions and mental illness and who had had many brushes with the law, pleaded guilty in a Lower Mainland provincial court to possession of stolen property and theft under $5,000. He was sentenced to a day in jail. Two days later, he is alleged to have killed a man in a Vancouver park.

He was awaiting trial in the North Fraser Pretrial Centre in Port Coquitlam when he killed himself on Jan. 8 by throwing himself off a third-floor walkway.

Dean Purdy, vice-president of the B.C. Government and Service Employees Union, says too many mentally ill inmates who should be in a medical facility are in jail and not getting the care they need.

“We truly have become the default mental-health facilities in this province,” Purdy said. “From what I’ve been told, this was a classic case of a person who did not belong in jail. He had some severe mental-health issues. I know he had multiple attempts at suicide.”

Brenner’s was the ninth suicide and 14th attempt in the remand centre since it opened in 2001.

A B.C. Corrections official says “extensive modifications” have been made to provincial jails over the past decade to prevent suicides.

“These include removing potential ligature points, redesigning cell furnishings and installing higher railings at NFPC, to eliminate a variety of potential or identified risks,” she said.

That’s a bit like buying more fire trucks to handle all the fires springing up, when the sensible thing to do is to prevent the fires.

But the prison system is not to blame. A large part of the problem resulted from the closing of mental institutions and the lack of mental-health services to replace them. It’s a problem found across North America.

A paper done for California’s Stanford University Law School says deinstitutionalization was originally seen as a humane way to serve the mentally ill in community-based settings, but “some politicians seized upon it as a way to save money by shutting down institutions without providing any meaningful treatment alternatives.”

The result has been a road to prison for thousands of mentally ill people.

“Prisons and jails are singularly ill-suited to house the mentally ill,” says the paper. “Premised on punitive forms of social control, prisons are not remotely compatible with the kind of supportive therapeutic milieus that the mentally ill require.”

In other words, instead of treating illness, the prison experience makes it worse.

Once, mentally ill people were sent to mental hospitals, many of which did a poor job of treatment. When those institutions were closed, it was with the promise that patients would find the services they need in the community.

The reality has fallen far short of that promise, and too many mentally ill people end up being institutionalized, but in exactly the wrong kind of institution. It’s not fair to them, and it’s not fair to corrections staff who have to pick up the load dropped by governments.

We would not want to return to Victorian-era insane asylums, but we should offer asylum to those who pose a danger to themselves and others. Secure facilities should be available where sick people are not only confined, but treated. Prisons can’t do that.

We should not ask the justice system to do the health system’s job.

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