New Brunswick·CBC Investigates

Justice system pays cost for inmates who don't get medication, lawyer warns

A mentally ill man begged a judge not to send him back to jail, where he couldn't get his medication. "It's to the point where I'm becoming suicidal," he said.

Mentally-ill man begged judge not to send him back to jail, where he couldn't get his medication

An inside view of the Shediac jail. (CBC)

A Saint John lawyer says the justice system is paying the price for disruptions to inmates' medications behind bars.

That disruption left one of David Mudge's clients begging a judge to go to a hospital instead of jail, warning the cycle was making him suicidal.

A CBC News investigation has found that inmates in New Brunswick and Nova Scotia jails frequently complain of not being able to get their prescriptions behind bars, including serious psychiatric medication. 

When that happens to one of Mudge's clients, he has to postpone court proceedings until the person is able to give him clear instructions.

"In the circumstances [where] they're dealing with criminal charges, they need to be aware of what's going on and making good decisions," Mudge said.

"Something like that can throw them off, slow the case down, slow progress down."

Wasted court time means more costs for the justice system, funded by the same taxpayers who pay the bill for medication and health care inside jails, a cycle Mudge described as "frustrating."

"Sometimes they're being averse to each other's interests."

New Brunswick isn't tracking the number of non-fatal drug overdoses that happen inside provincial jails, according to a right to information request. (CBC )
Public Safety Minister Denis Landry has declined to speak to CBC News for its stories on access to medication behind bars and deaths in jail.

In an emailed statement, Elaine Bell, a department spokesperson, said she can't talk about specific cases because of privacy legislation.

Generally, she said inmates aren't allowed to bring their prescriptions into jail with them because of concerns the label doesn't match the contents of the bottle.

She said all inmates receive a medical assessment and "steps are taken" to obtain medication for those who need it.

Crime was 'a manic episode'

David Andrew Breau, pictured here in a handout photo, begged a judge not to send him back to jail, where he said he wasn't getting his psychiatric medication. He said he wants to turn his life around. (Submitted)
David Andrew Breau has had four psychiatric assessments in the past year and a half.

Each time he returned to a cell at the Saint John Regional Correctional Centre, where he was awaiting sentencing on a slew of charges, Breau's progress appeared to fade. He claimed he wasn't getting his medication.

That prompted both a judge and Breau's lawyer, Mudge, to write letters to the jail, asking for answers on why Breau's medication wasn't being delivered. But the letters had little immediate effect.

"It's frustrating, when I know that there's something there that could be done better," Mudge said in an interview.

He questions whether the medical history of an inmate is being shared between the corrections system and the community and if that information is being shared quickly enough.

'I'm becoming suicidal'

Last fall, 29-year-old Breau admitted to a number of charges related to a terrifying night at a Saint John motel room, where he kicked down the door and scared the guests.

It was, he said, "a manic episode."

"That same day, I tried to jump a train," Breau told a judge in November.

When he stood to address the judge that November morning, Breau apologized for his actions and begged not to go back to jail.

David Andrew Breau made his case to Judge Andrew Palmer inside the Saint John Law Courts, pictured here, last November. (CBC)
He said he suffers from social phobia, anxiety disorder and major depression, conditions that are "getting worse by the day" in jail without his medication.

"I'm going through segregation," Breau said, as his voice started to break.

"Right now I'm in the hole. I can't even associate with any people."

Without his medication, Breau said he worried he might go "off the rails." He warned that jail is too hard on his head.

"It's to the point where I'm becoming suicidal."

Mudge agreed that jail wasn't the right place for Breau, saying it would be a step backwards in treating people with mental health issues in the criminal justice system.

"What we have here is a gap in the system," Mudge told the court that day. "The court has an opportunity to address that."

A candidate for mental health court

"I wish I could address it," Judge Andrew Palmer responded.

"The way to address it is to create the services and the programs within the community to deal with individuals like Mr. Breau."

He noted that Breau would have been a perfect candidate for Saint John's mental health court, which has been on hiatus since 2013.

While there's been progress on bringing the program back, Bell, the department spokesperson, said there's no timeline for when the court might start taking new cases.

With few alternatives, Palmer sentenced Breau to seven additional months in jail — enough time, the judge noted, to make a plan for Breau to enrol in mental health treatment somewhere else.

"Mental illness is clearly the root of the problem here," the judge said.

Similar complaints

Dr. Ed Schollenberg, registrar of the College of Physicians and Surgeons of New Brunswick, gets calls and letters from inmates who complain of access to health care and medication behind bars. (CBC)
New Brunswick's College of Physicians and Surgeons fields at least one letter or call per month from inmates like Breau who say they're not getting their medication. The notes come from federal prisons and provincial jails.

Often, Dr. Ed Schollenberg, the college's registrar, will contact the doctor informally to try to get the issue resolved. He often doesn't know what happens after that.

Many times, the doctor in the institution visits only once per week and hasn't even seen the inmate in person, Schollenberg said.

"Decisions may have been made through nurses or others."

He said it's common for jails to withdraw any medication that could pose a risk to security or safety if turned into contraband.

But Schollenberg said it's not up to him to determine whether the balance is pushed too far on the side of safety and security over the health of an inmate.

"All we want is for the physician to make an honest assessment," he said.

"Physicians are obligated to do what they think is best for the patient."