Auditor general slams 'unacceptable' lack of treatment for mentally ill inmates

New Brunswick Auditor General Kim MacPherson concludes New Brunswick has one of the least effective systems in Canada for treating inmates.

Kim MacPherson found inmates often leave jail in worse condition than when they entered

New Brunswick auditor general Kim MacPherson says she was 'shocked' when she learned what's happening inside provincial jails. (CBC)

New Brunswick jails aren't offering any addiction treatment or therapy for mentally ill inmates, according to the province's auditor general.

Kim MacPherson's investigation into treatment in jails revealed a patchwork system where no one is responsible for treating mentally ill or addicted inmates. 

In releasing her report Tuesday, MacPherson described a cycle where inmates lose access to addiction and mental health treatment behind bars, making them sicker. 

When they're released, they're often worse off than when they entered jail, MacPherson said.

"I was shocked at what's going on in our New Brunswick correctional facilities," she said.

"When I was reading it I was saying, this is the type of stuff you would see in a developing country, not in New Brunswick. It shouldn't be happening."

She concluded that New Brunswick has one of the least effective systems of treating inmates in the country. 

Segregation without treatment 

In some cases, MacPherson found inmates are being thrown into segregation for months without mental health support. 

For other inmates, something as simple as a transfer between jails can disrupt any treatment or services they were receiving.

An ongoing CBC News investigation has uncovered several deaths of inmates linked to addiction and mental health issues in the past decade.

Transfers between jails can disrupt treatment and services for inmates. (CBC)

It has also found that inmates are routinely losing access to their prescribed medication behind bars, including drugs for mental health conditions, and that officials aren't tracking drug overdoses in jail.

'His condition deteriorated' 

In one case, a person called "Inmate D" spent six months in medical segregation with little to no mental health help, MacPherson said.

The man was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia and his time in segregation made him worse.

"After a few months his condition deteriorated to the extent he could no longer perform basic functions like getting dressed," the report says.

"He was having severe hallucinations."

In another case, the auditor general learned of an inmate who wasn't allowed to take his ADHD medication after being transferred from a federal prison. 

The loss of his medication disrupted him and he ended up in segregation. 

He too left jail sicker than when he went in.

MacPherson found some cases of inmates being thrown into segregation for months without mental health support.

Poor data 

MacPherson also slammed the correctional service's "archaic" system of keeping records, with most of the information on inmates still on paper.

That makes it hard to collect data about people behind bars. The auditor general couldn't even find out how many provincial inmates have schizophrenia.

The shortfalls in the system mean people are going back into the community more likely to re-offend, MacPherson said, which affects everyone.

She also suggested the problems with the system have a financial toll. It costs about $66,000 to house one person in jail for a year.

"It can help save lives, improve inmate and staff well-being, reduce the risk of re-offending, save money and contribute to healthier, safer communities," MacPherson said.

All of the inmates inside provincial jails will be released in two years or less. The most common reason for incarceration is minor theft under $5,000 or breaching a court order or conditional sentence. 

More training, clear responsibilities 

MacPherson called for clear regulations that spell out who is responsible for providing treatment to inmates and a plan for how to integrate services offered by different government departments.

The Department of Justice and Public Safety agreed to adopt a new mental health screening tool that will be used on inmates being admitted to jail.​ CBC News requested an interview with the minister of the department but did not receive one.

Green Party Leader David Coon says one year is too long to wait for a report on how to overhaul mental health and addiction treatment in New Brunswick jails. (CBC)

The government has also formed a committee to develop "comprehensive solutions" to the auditor general's findings.

But the committee might not report back until next June.

One year is too long to wait, according to Green Party Leader David Coon.

"This is so symptomatic of the way this government has been operating," Coon said. "They do studies, they do reports, they set up committees, they do strategies and never take action."

People in jail aren't 'garbage'

The issues in MacPherson's report aren't new to ombud Charles Murray, who is responsible for investigating complaints about provincial jails. He said he's been raising the problems to government for years.

But little will change without political will to spend money on better treatment for inmates, Murray said. 

New Brunswick's ombud, Charles Murray, says there must be political will to change the way inmates are treated in provincial jails. (CBC)

"Everyone who is serving time in a New Brunswick jail at this time in less than two years will be back out in the community," he said.

"We have an opportunity while they are in jail to provide them with the sort of help that will help them to succeed."

People who can't see the human toll should look at the cost to the system when someone re-offends after being released from jail, Murray suggested.

For Coon, it's an issue of changing the attitude toward people who are incarcerated.

"Yes, they've been found guilty of one crime or another," he said.

"But it doesn't mean they should be treated like garbage when they go to jail. That's what's been happening."

About the Author

Karissa Donkin

Karissa Donkin is a journalist in CBC's Atlantic investigative unit. Do you have a story you want us to investigate? Send your tips to NBInvestigates@CBC.ca.