One of the topics that is rarely discussed either among activists, or anyone for that matter, is that of people with disabilities who must serve time. Prison time is challenging enough without adding the pressure of having to cope with one’s disability. The individual may have relied on various treatments and/or medications for their disability, but the question remains as to whether or not disabled prisoners are receiving proper treatment in Canadian prisons?
In 2010, a a paper was submitted to Ontario’s Ministry of Community Safety and Correctional Services by the Alliance for Equality for Blind Canadians. One of the issues that arose in that report was a strong concern over people with mental health issues in prison.
An article entitled, “Mentally Ill Offenders Swamping Prisons,” by Kirk Makin in the Globe and Mail, Nov. 18, 2010 reported:
“The Ontario Review Board – a provincial body responsible for offenders found not criminally responsible for committing offences – had more than 1,500 patients under its purview last year, a four-fold increase from 1992. Almost 300 offenders are added annually, dwarfing the numbers who are released.”
The question of course is: “why are the rates of persons with mental illness rising in provincial and federal prisons?”
“Factors behind the phenomenon include new Canadians who suffer mental collapses as they try to cope with relocating, faulty mental health legislation, and police who lay charges rather than wait for a hospital to find a forensic bed…”
In another report presented to the U.K. House of Lords in 2013, this startling statement was made:
“Prisons now hold the single largest population of the mentally ill in Canada. Prisons around the world are becoming the asylums of the 21st century. Inmate populations also have high rates of brain injury and learning disability…31% of the inmate population is a carrier of Hepatitis C; 5% are HIV positive.”
This is not solely an issue related to men. DAWN, the disAbled Women’s Network conducted an in-depth research project in 2003.
“[…] with the closure of psychiatric institutions and increasingly overtaxed and under-resourced community based services, Canada is now witnessing a marked increase in the number of women with cognitive and mental disabilities who are being criminalized… The practical reality is that mental health needs are equated with risk.20 Women in maximum security who experience behaviour difficulties are more likely to be placed in administrative segregation. As a result, women who are suicidal or have mental or cognitive disabilities are often isolated, deprived of clothing and placed in stripped/barren cells.”
These facts provide a disturbing picture into the lives of people with mental illness and cognitive disabilities in Canadian prison. Clearly, people with disabilities who are at risk for, or who are already incarcerated need advocates who understand their needs and will stand up for them within the criminal justice system. The two laws which govern the rights of Canadians (and they also apply to persons who are incarcerated) are the Canadian Human Rights Act and the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. It is the latter document, the Charter which provides all Canadians with equality under the law. This gives incarcerated individuals the right to press for proper treatment and sue for discrimination. The Supreme Court of Canada “[…] characterizes equality as a dynamic concept whereby the “accommodation of differences…is the essence of true equality.”
In 2014, a book entitled Disability Incarcerated Imprisonment and Disability in the United States and Canada was published. It is an excellent expose of the prison systems in both countries and their response to the needs of disabled prisoners. At this point in time, disability rights activists need to place attention on this matter. There needs to be a thorough, updated review by provincial and federal governments to address this matter. The first order of business is an assessment of the disconnect between mental health services and the criminal justice system. Clearly, something is deeply wrong in our social services system with such a high rate of people with mental health issues ending up in provincial and federal prisons. There should be a standard process for evaluating people who come through the criminal justice system who clearly have mental health issues, and how they can best be served. The person may not have been aware they were committing a crime; they may have been taken advantage of by others; or they may have been in a desperate situation. Also, people with mental health issues who end up incarcerated must have proper treatment inside the prison. Canadian prisons must not be allowed to be transformed into 19th century asylums.
In 2003, DAWN sounded the alarm concerning the treatment of women with disabilities in Canadian prisons:
“Federally sentenced women with mental and developmental disabilities are being blatantly discriminated against under Section 17 of the Corrections and Conditional Release Act which equates ‘mental disability’ with a security risk” says Yvonne Peters, a human rights lawyer from Manitoba who authored the report presented by DAWN (DisAbled Women’s Network) Canada. “Corrections legislation perpetrates negative stereotypes and assumptions which characterize mental disability as dangerous. The decision to assign a security level is made by treatment teams, which include correctional officers, who are not mental health professionals.”
While Canadian society continues to make positive strides towards a more equal and inclusive society, people with disabilities continue to be vulnerable in significant ways; perhaps no more significantly than as disabled prisoners. When one adds the factor of disability into incarceration, the question becomes; “how can we as a society create the means to provide the equality, dignity and inclusiveness for all people within the Canadian criminal justice system?” The present situation indicates we are falling well short of that goal. As the numbers of women and men entering the Canadian prison system continues to rise, there must be an immediate assessment of the needs of disabled prisoners, otherwise we cannot claim to be a society that cares for all its citizens.