Nfld. & Labrador

Funding needed for prison mental health programs, says advocate

The head of the Newfoundland and Labrador Canadian Mental Health Association wants to see support programs offered in women's correctional facilities across the island.
Heidi Edgar, head of the province's Canadian Mental Health Association, says more funding is needed to offer the Justice Program to female inmates. (CBC)

The head of a mental health advocacy group in the province wants to see support programs offered in womens' correctional facilities across the island.

Heidi Edgar, acting CEO of the Newfoundland and Labrador Canadian Mental Health Association, says such programs already exist for male inmates at Her Majesty's Penitentiary in St. John's. 

In an interview with the St. John's Morning Show, Edgar discussed the value of the Justice Program, which provides counselling for inmates with a diagnosed mental illness. The program also assesses the supports a person needs once they are released from jail.

"And that oftentimes means we're getting them connected with psychiatric services and programs and supports that are available in the community as well," said Edgar.

Justice Program 

Inmates are referred to the program by staff within the institution. From there, the inmate must sign a consent form so the institution can access their medical history and consult with past physicians.  

"We're working with them to find out how is it that they found their way into the correctional system," she said.

"We want to see those folks getting the adequate and appropriate treatment that they require for their mental health, so that they don't end up in the correctional system, which happens way too often." 

We're working with them to find out how is it that they found their way into the correctional system.- Heidi Edgar, CEO of the Newfoundland and Labrador Canadian Mental Health Association

The Justice Program was established nearly six years ago and has a 67 per cent success rate — meaning, 67 per cent of individuals have not re-offended, nor have they been reincarnated. 

"We have people who are finding their first apartment and are living successfully in their apartment who are 40 and 50-years old, and this is their first time that they've had a home and are able to maintain it through the supports of the justice system."

Despite the success of the program, Edgar says the association needs additional funding to accommodate more inmates. With one coordinator and two staff, the program in St. John's helps 25 inmates. 
 
"We are at max capacity and actually have a wait list right now," Edgar said. She estimates three or four men are on that wait list. 

Similar supports needed for women

Edgar wants women in the province to have access to the Justice Program as well. 

"We would like to have funding to be able to offer our service in Clarenville," she said.  

While Stella's Circle has a program for inmates in central Newfoundland, Edgar said the Justice Program is more intensive, and focuses on helping women readapt to life after incarceration.
The Canadian Mental Health Association wants to offer the Justice Program to women at this correctional centre in Clarenville. (Courtesy Kathy Gosse/The Packet )

To establish the program, Edgar said the Canadian Mental Health Association needs funding for a coordinator in Clarenville, as well as additional support staff in St. John's. 

Edgar said prisons simply aren't equipped to provide care for men and women with complex mental health needs. 

"Her Majesty's Penitentiary and the Justice department have been very progressive by having our program in there, but that's not where people with mental illness belong," she said. 

"People with mental illness need to be treated, they need to be supported in the community or in a mental health facility. Whatever meets their needs at this time."

A provincial priority

Health Minister Steve Kent said government recognizes more needs to be done to improve conditions for individuals in the justice system.
Health Minister Steve Kent says the mental health and addictions strategy is his top priority. (CBC)

 "The vast majority of people in our correction system are struggling with mental health and/or addictions issues," said Kent. "We have to take that really seriously."

 Kent said his team is working to build a new mental health and addictions strategy that's aimed at drawing connections between health, justice, education and housing.

"We need to do a better job of connecting our justice system and our healthcare system."

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