The number of self-injury incidents in federal prisons has increased dramatically over the past five years, according to a report released Monday by the Office of the Correctional Investigator, and women account for a disproportionate amount of that jump.
The report looks at how the Correctional Service of Canada responds to such incidents, including the use of force, discipline and criminal charges to prevent or manage chronic self-injury among federally sentenced women.
There were 323 incidents of women harming themselves while incarcerated in 2012-13, up from 54 in 2007-08.
This comes since the death of 19-year-old Ashley Smith, who killed herself in the presence of prison staff. Her death is the subject of a coroner's inquiry in Ontario.
'So we know prison conditions are ... becoming more harsh, more chaotic, more crowded.' -—Howard Sapers, correctional investigator
The report says prisons are "ill-equipped to safely and appropriately manage the complex mental-health needs" of these women. Correctional investigator Howard Sapers also found that many of the measures used, including segregation, make the problem worse.
Almost all prison staff interviewed for the report said that isolation escalated the behaviour of self-harming.
The report called on the correctional service to "transfer the most chronic and complex cases of self-injury" to community psychiatric facilities.
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"If a federally sentenced offender needs complex heart surgery, they certainly don't perform that heart surgery inside a prison," Sapers told CBC News. "They send that person to a hospital. We're saying the same things need to happen for these individuals who are acutely mentally ill."
The report found that rather than health-care professionals at the prison being the first to respond, it was the security staff.
Sapers recommended that chronic self-injury be treated and managed as a mental health concern, not a security or control issue.
In a statement, Public Safety Minister Steven Blaney said, "We believe that prisons are not the appropriate place to treat those with serious mental illness."
The minister's office did not specify whether that means some inmates might be moved to community psychiatric hospitals, as Saper has recommended. Blaney's office did not respond to a request for clarification.
Blaney's statement also said that the government has "taken action to improve access to mental health treatment and training for corrections staff in prisons."
But Sapers said that despite government investment and increased training, he's having to make the same recommendations over and over.
"We've seen an increase in self-harm incidents, we've seen an increase in use of force incidents … we've seen an increase in crowding, in double-bunking. So we know prison conditions are … becoming more harsh, more chaotic, more crowded and we think all these things are related," said Sapers.
Conservative Senator Bob Runciman urged the correction service to adopt a different approach.
In a statement, the former provincial public safety minister said, "We've known for some time that federal prisons are an inappropriate place for seriously mentally ill offenders and this report reinforces that."
"Now it's up to CSC to listen and take the appropriate action."