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Howard Sapers

The number of prison inmates with mental illness is on the rise while their health services are deteriorating, suggests a federal report released Friday.

"The correctional service must swiftly and substantively address the serious deficiencies in the delivery of mental-health services to this vulnerable group," Howard Saper says in his annual report on the plight of mentally ill prisoners.

In 1998, data from Correctional Services Canada found 1,000 inmates, out of 14,000 in the prison population, were diagnosed with mental-health disorders. In 2004, that number soared to 1,500 in a prison population of 12,500.

Saper urged Correctional Services to invest in treatment programs and provide "supportive transitioning" back to communities. He said proper treatment is needed to ensure mentally ill people don't re-offend.

The correctional investigator also recommended training programs for parole staff to teach them how to better deal with offenders with mental-health problems.

"Our prisons have become warehouses for the mentally ill due to funding cuts and closures in the community psychiatric facilities," Penny Marrett, head of the Canadian Mental Health Association, said in reaction to the report.

"This is an inhumane and unsafe way to address offenders with mental illness."

Marrett points out that many inmates are in prisons for low-level, non-violent offences, and aren't getting treated because of a shortage of clinical staff and inadequate facilities.

"They are victimized and exploited," says Len Wall of the Schizophrenia Society of Canada. "Prison rules punish mentally ill offenders for symptoms of their illness – such as being noisy or refusing orders."

Correctional Services says $29.5 million has been set aside over a five-year period to fund the community health section of the recommendations. Training for parole offices and staff in community correctional centres will be part of that package.

Advocates for mentally ill people say that isn't enough.

They want more "mental-health courts" which divert offenders to treatment programs rather than prison. They also want rules to prevent placing such prisoners in isolated confinement.