The mental-health crisis in our prison system has to be addressed in society at large—with compassion, care and culturally astute initiatives.
In a study published in the May 2019 issue of the Canadian Medical Association Journal, researchers from the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority described Indigenous rates of incarceration as a “health crisis.” The article found that Indigenous people are four to 26 times more likely to be jailed than non-Indigenous people, and that they lose far more years of life as a direct result of incarceration than they do to more common health issues such as heart disease and cancer. Time spent in jail increases a person’s risk of contracting health problems such as depression, heart disease or obesity. Negative health effects of incarceration linger even after a person is released; the risk is particularly high in the first two weeks after release, when deaths from overdose or suicide are all too common.
Prior to her Senate appointment, Senator Boyer was appointed as a Canada Research Chair at Brandon University in Manitoba, where she studied the healthcare received by prisoners in Canada’s correctional facilities. Her research focused on the most vulnerable populations in prison, particularly Indigenous, female and trans prisoners. She found that these prisoners lacked adequate physical and mental healthcare and treatment for addictions, which resulted in alarmingly high suicide rates.
“There’s a lack of understanding about the symptoms of mental illness and the behaviours that are associated with mental illness,” Senator Boyer said. “The correctional officers may respond with increased security measures rather than any appropriate crisis response. For women this is even worse. We have women, especially Aboriginal women, who don’t have culturally appropriate programs, and they’re unlikely to receive proper mental healthcare when they’re incarcerated.”
The practice of solitary confinement similarly affects a disproportionate number of Indigenous and Black prisoners. While Indigenous peoples comprise just over four percent of Canada’s population, they represent 28 percent of the general inmate population and 40 percent of the segregated inmate population. For women, the numbers are even more despairing: forty percent of female prisoners are Indigenous, as are 50 percent of women sentenced to maximum-security federal prisons. The past decade has seen a 30 percent increase in the number of female prisoners sentenced to federal prisons, and yet the Office of the Correctional Investigator has noted no increase in criminality among women during this period.
“Spending days locked in a cell the size of a small bathroom undoubtedly generates and heightens mental health issues,” Senator Boyer said in a speech on the Senate floor. “Hallucinations, paranoia, crippling anxiety and dissociation are just some of the psychological, neurological and physical damage that isolation and segregation engender. We must take the time to imagine, to place ourselves in the shoes of a segregated prisoner and to consider alternatives to these inhumane conditions. After all, the purpose of our corrections institution is to rehabilitate, not to punish, and certainly not to aggravate pre-existing mental health issues.”
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