B.C. group files human rights complaint over treatment of federal inmates with mental illness, disabilities

A complaint filed with the Canadian Human Rights Commission claims that federal inmates with mental disabilities and mental health issues face discrimination and aren't getting appropriate care.

Prisoners' Legal Services claims discrimination and lack of appropriate care

A new complaint filed with the Canadian Human Rights Commission alleges a lack of care for federal inmates with mental disabilities and mental health issues. (Rafferty Baker/CBC)

Joey Toutsaint, 31, has been in prison since he was a teen. He transferred to the adult correctional system when he turned 18.

During his time in Correctional Service Canada (CSC) institutions across the country, Toutsaint has had a history of anxiety attacks, suicide attempts and "very serious self-harm," he wrote in a complaint to the Canadian Human Rights Commission (CHRC) in May. 

He described his body covered in scars from self-harm, and having even chewed into his arm three times to reach an artery.

Toutsaint claims the way prison officials have addressed his behaviour has been to put him in solitary confinement — either segregation or an observation cell where he described feeling "like I was in a torture chamber."

He estimated that he's spent a total of seven or eight years in solitary confinement. 

But individual complaints like Toutsiant's aren't leading to broad, systemic changes to the treatment of those with mental health issues and mental disabilities in federal prisons, according to the B.C.-based Prisoners' Legal Services. 

PLS lodged another complaint with the CHRC this week meant to represent all such inmates.​

"He's definitely an extreme case," said Jennifer Metcalfe, lawyer and executive director at PLS, which made Toutsiant's complaint available to CBC News on Wednesday.

"There's probably a handful of people in his situation who are in pretty much constant solitary confinement."

'Administrative segregation'

Metcalfe said her group has heard about 130 cases in the past year that deal with mental health issues, and about 120 issues concerning what she calls "administrative segregation."

PLS filed a similar complaint against CSC earlier this month in an effort to get better access to opioid substitution treatment for inmates.

"We want a system where, at the first signs of trauma or self-harm, that people are given intensive services, including counselling, so they don't get worse," said Metcalfe, adding that isolation leads to a more serious issues, and a deterioration of mental health.

In the new "representative" complaint, PLS claims prisoners often don't trust the people who provide health and psychological care in CSC because they're the same people who do risk assessments — which can result in negative effects on prisoners.

"The vast majority of prisoners suffer from past trauma and addictions, but are not receiving adequate therapeutic treatment to help them heal," the complaint reads.

'Main remedy'

Metcalfe said she hopes the complaint leads to mediation with CSC, or that the CHRC tribunal considers the case.

"The main remedy that we're seeking is for the government to partner with the provincial ministries of health," she said, adding that keeping health care independent from the CSC system will help foster trust between inmates and those providing care.

Metcalfe said PLS also wants to see more resources go toward counselling and having people spend time with inmates like Toutsaint, rather than relegating them to isolating situations.

CSC provided CBC News with a written statement, saying it "has a legislative mandate to provide every inmate with essential health care and reasonable access to non-essential mental health care that will contribute to the inmate's rehabilitation and reintegration into the community."

It said $80 million was invested in fiscal year 2016-17 "to support the treatment and management of federal inmates with mental health needs."


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Rafferty Baker

Rafferty Baker is CBC Vancouver's mobile journalist. Follow him @raffertybaker