Federal plan to help mentally ill female inmates on hold

A plan by Correctional Service Canada to move female inmates who are mentally ill from federal prisons into a new, specially equipped unit at an Ontario mental-health centre is on hold because the federal and provincial governments haven't finalized a funding agreement.

Program to move federal inmates was spawned from inquest into Ashley Smith's disturbing death

Minister of Public Safety Steven Blaney announced a pilot project to house female mentally ill federal inmates in Brockville, Ont., last year, but the effort has since stalled due to funding disagreements. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

A plan by Correctional Service Canada to move female inmates who are mentally ill from prisons across the country into a new, specially equipped unit in Ontario’s Brockville Mental Health Centre is on hold because governments have yet to finalize a funding agreement.

Last May, Minister of Public Safety Steven Blaney held a large news conference in Brockville to announce the pilot project as part of the government’s response to the death of Ashley Smith. The 19-year old, who was mentally ill, choked to death in October 2007 in a Kitchener, Ont., federal institution after tying a piece of cloth around her neck. Guards stood outside her cell and watched — they had been ordered not to intervene.

Federal corrections officials have acknowledged that between 20 and 30 female inmates are in need of psychiatric care that can’t be provided in prison. Blaney said at the time the two beds in Brockville were a first step in addressing those needs.

“The death of Ashley Smith was a terrible tragedy. This is why we need to take action, so such a thing never happens again,” Blaney said.

'It's disappointingly slow'

So far, however, there has been little action. Corrections officials declined to be interviewed by CBC News, but said in a statement that negotiations were “underway” to finalize the terms of  “a pilot project.”

“I think it’s a travesty,” said Kim Pate, head of the Canadian Association of Elizabeth Fry Societies. “It’s absolutely outrageous that an announcement can be made and apparently no action has been taken.”

Pate says she has received calls from parole officers and other prison staff who are frustrated that some of these women remain in segregation — some even in physical restraints — because corrections staff don’t know how to handle them.

“It’s disappointingly slow,” said Howard Sapers, Canada’s correctional investigator who acts as an ombudsman for prisons.

“There has been delay after delay,” he said, even though the needs of these inmates have been clearly identified for years. “We need to get on with it.”

'Accountability and transparency issues'

Last fall, Sapers released a special report, titled “Risky Business,” that detailed the cases of eight women in federal custody who were desperately in need of mental-health services. The government has yet to respond to that report, even though that is required under the law.

Sapers says the minister has told him the response will come “in due course.”

Ashley Smith died in federal custody after guards, who were told not to intervene in her frequent fits of violence, watched as she slowly choked herself to death in her cell in a Kitchener, Ont., institution. (Courtesy of the Smith family)

“I’m very dissatisfied with that response. I think Canadians and parliamentarians deserve to see a response from the Correctional Service to the very serious issued that were raised,” Sapers said.

“It raises some serious accountability and transparency issues.”

The government has set up a steering committee to examine the issue and respond to the 104 recommendations arising from the inquest into Smith’s death. Blaney said that report will be completed by the end of this year. 

Waiting on funding

Meanwhile, George Weber, chief executive officer of the Royal Ottawa and Brockville Mental Health Centre, said Brockville has not begun the renovations to accommodate two prisoners.

He said the hospital is willing to accept inmates on a “one-off” basis for treatment even without a final agreement, adding this has happened in the past.

But Weber said corrections officials have said they won’t transfer any inmates until a final funding agreement has been signed.

Pate fears there may be more deaths before the government’s plan is in place. But she hopes ongoing attention and the “public outcry at what happened to Ashley Smith” will force the government to speed up its plans.