Feds closing 500 acute-care beds for sick inmates

Saskatoon's Regional Psychiatric Centre is one of several federal prisons designated for inmates with severe mental illness. File / Global News

Updated at 7:22 p.m. to clarify future status of Shepody Healing Centre.

Federal prisons are losing 515 acute-care beds, which are being transferred to provide “intermediate” psychiatric care as Corrections Canada struggles to cope with a crisis of mental illness among offenders.

At the same time, the federal prison watchdog says, both the number of acute-care and intermediate facilities for women are being halved months after Ottawa finally responded to recommendations from an inquest into the strangling death of Ashley Smith, which a coroner’s jury ruled a homicide.

A review of Correctional Services of Canada‘s mental health service model “indicated that nationally 150 hospital care beds would be required to meet the needs of those who require acute level care,” Corrections spokesperson Sara Parkes said in an email.

Global News first wrote about this planned “delisting” of psychiatric beds last June.

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No beds are being closed altogether, Parkes said, adding that Corrections services is assessing inmates now to see who will get what level of care.

It already plans to close acute-care beds at Shepody in Dorchester, N.B., which will involve moving several severely ill inmates to Quebec – a move that’s angered victims as well as inmates, Global News reported this week. “Shepody Healing Centre will remain a treatment centre,” Parkes said in a subsequent email. “Its primary responsibility will be to provide high-intensity intermediate-level mental health care services to inmates.”

Providing intermediate care to inmates who have mental illness but aren’t severely ill is important — and it’s something Corrections Canada hasn’t sufficiently provided in the past, says prison watchdog Howard Sapers.

But he’s concerned that the planned changes don’t actually take into account the needs of sick inmates and will result in a complex, vulnerable population of mentally ill offenders not getting the care they require by law but also for rehabilitation if they’re ever to reintegrate safely into the community once they’ve served their sentences.

“The good news is they’re finally going to be funding the critically important intermediate care component. … But the idea was never to rob Peter to pay Paul,” Sapers said.

“The idea was never to decrease acute care capacity. … This looks very much like sort of back of a napkin calculations.”

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And there are problems with federal prisons’ acute-care provision to begin with:

A Global News investigation revealed last year that Canada’s “psychiatric prisons,” which are meant to provide acute care for offenders with severe mental illness, are places of violence and segregation, rather than healing — and are sites of the most inmate deaths and assaults of any federal prisons.

“Many of these men and women are acutely ill. And that’s why the correctional service has that capacity to begin with. And the law requires that their health needs be addressed and by removing that capacity,  you’re removing the ability to live up to that requirement,” Sapers said.

Sapers is also particularly concerned by what he says is an overall decrease in the system’s capacity to deal with women inmates with mental illness: Acute care beds are being halved from about 50 to about 24, he said; at the same time, the capacity of existing Structured Living Environments for sick women inmates will shrink from about 60 to about 30, he said.

These reductions in care for severely unwell women comes amid more revelations that, years after Ashley Smith died strangled to death in her cell in 2007, Corrections Canada still struggles to meet the needs of women inmates with mental illness. The Crown is still trying to designate Marlene Carter, a suicidal and self-harming offender who was tied down in solitary for years, a dangerous offender.

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“We still have a tremendous number of people with mental health issues sitting in segregation cells,” he said.

“It’s just not clear they’ve the time to properly validate their plan against the reality of their population.”

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Instead of reducing existing mental health resources, argues Elizabeth Fry Society director and University of Saskatchewan Human Rights Chair Kim Pate, Corrections Canada should get the most mentally ill inmates into forensic psychiatric hospitals and out of prisons altogether, freeing up prison beds for intermediate care.

“It strikes me as cynical beyond belief,” she said. “The pretext that they’re trying to provide care is ludicrous.”

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