Nunavut's new minimum security prison in Iqaluit will have space dedicated to assist inmates with mental health issues, but an expert says that's no replacement for the specialized staffing needed to deliver the services required.

A damning 2015 report from Canada's Auditor General slammed the territory's corrections facilities for failing to provide adequate access to mental health services. In response, the Department of Justice says they intend to dedicate half of the 48 beds at the recently-opened Makigiarvik correctional facility to assist prisoners with mental health issues.

The justice department says it "intends" to provide specialized mental health programming in the jail. It's not clear what that means for staffing.

Yvonne Niego, assistant deputy minister for the territory's justice department, says the new, dedicated space at Makigiarvik is a game changer. 

"When we try to run our programs with a lack of space and a lack of means to separate out the different security risks then it's difficult for [prisoners] to be ready and able to participate in programming," Niego said. 

Common area Makigiarvik

Nunavut's department of Justice is promising to dedicate one of two identical wings at Makigiarvik, pictured here, to house inmates with mental health needs. (Kieran Oudshoorn/CBC)

However, not everyone is convinced.

"[Providing] specialized housing for some people who have mental health vulnerabilities, that's important," said Dr. Alexander Simpson, chief of forensic psychology at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health in Toronto, "but that's not the same as a mental health service."

On average, said Simpson, 15 per cent of a standing prison population will require specialist mental health support. That percentage includes inmates with "current major-depression, a history of bipolar disorder or a lifetime history of psychotic illness."

But mental health staff do more than just treat major mental illness. Simpson said that they also assist in dealing with inmates with behavioural issues, such as substance abuse and anger management.

A facility like Iqaluit's Baffin Correctional Centre or Makigiarvik, said Simpson, should have a specialized team of psychiatrists, psychologists, nurses and social workers who can triage inmates as they arrive, assess their mental health needs, and provide ongoing treatment.

Currently, Nunavut's Department of Justice employs one psychologist and two full-time nurses in Iqaluit, and one nurse in Rankin Inlet.