Suicide attempts, self-harm rising in Canada's prisons

Cases of serious self-injury by federal inmates across Canada has nearly tripled in the last five years as prisons become more chaotic and overcrowded, according Canada's Correctional Investigator.

Aboriginal offenders account for 45% of all incidents, ombudsman's report finds

Cases of serious self-injury by federal inmates across Canada has nearly tripled in the last five years — a "dramatic" rise as prison conditions become more chaotic and overcrowded, according Canada's Correctional Investigator.

Howard Sapers said there were 912 incidents of self-injury in the 2011-2012 fiscal year involving 300 offenders — including cases of cutting, head-banging, self-strangulation, burning and ingesting harmful objects. Women offenders accounted for one-third of the recorded incidents.

Aboriginal offenders accounted for 45 per cent of all self-harm incidents, involving 104 inmates, and close to a third of the cases occurred in segregation units.

CBC News Network’s Power & Politics reported on the five-year spike on Oct. 11, reporting on figures from the Correctional Service of Canada under Access to Information.

Correctional Investigator of Canada Howard Sapers says cases of self-injury by federal inmates has doubled in the last five years. (Tom Hanson/Canadian Press)

The program has also reported on the rise in "use of force" incidents in federal prisons, the proliferation of gang members and the increase in crowding and double-bunking. The increase is most pronounced in regions like the Prairies where overcrowding is most acute.

Sapers said there is no "straight line" link between the number of offenders and incidents of self-harm, but rather reflects that CSC's response to the problem isn't working.

"There is a relationship between dysfunction in a prison and crowding. The more crowded and overcrowded any prison gets, the less it's able to deliver on its reintegration and rehabilitative mandate," he told a news conference in Ottawa.

CSC policy defines self-injury as the "intentional, direct injuring of body tissue without suicidal intent."

While "use of force" interventions — including physical handling, restraints, use of pepper spray and placement in segregation or observation cells — are sometimes necessary to preserve life or prevent more injury, these responses could actually prompt more self-destructive behaviour, Sapers warned.

"The Office has reviewed a number of chronic self-injury cases that call into question strategies that exclusively rely on control measures," he said.

"In these cases, as the security response ratchets up, they cycle of self-destructive behaviour often repeats itself, becoming more frequent, sometimes more desperate, and, occasionally, even lethal. In other words, the measures used to stop or prevent self-injurious behaviour can actually serve to reinforce it."

Report puts focus on mental health

Some documented cases of self-mutilation involve slashing of the forearm by a razor blade, slashing of the mouth and body cavities by a pop can lid, insertion of objects into a re-opened abdominal wound, ligature tied around a male offender's genitals, and head-banging.

In one case, the CSC resorted to a protective helmet and specialized restraint equipment to limit brain injury, and has also build Canada's first "padded prison cell" in Saskatchewan.

The report found 21 per cent of the inmate population is of aboriginal descent and nine per cent are black - far above their representation outside prison. (Lars Hagberg/Canadian Press)

Sapers said it's time for CSC to manage self-injury through a mental health lens rather than as security incidents, expanding the use of alternative mental health care problems that include community treatment facilities.

The Correctional Investigator's annual report looks at a wide-range of problems in federal penitentiaries, from access to mental health care and programs to the conditions of confinement, deaths in custody and special issues related to women and aboriginal offenders.

Sapers makes 16 key recommendations to the Correctional Service of Canada to improve treatment of prisoners and the effectiveness of the prison system, including a ban on prolonged segregation for offenders who are mentally ill or at risk of self-harm or suicide.

In its response to the report, CSC said it supports the recommendation in principle — and insists administration segregation is used only as a "last resort" to ensure the safety of inmates, staff and visitors.

The report notes a rise in visible minorities, aboriginal people and women in penitentiaries, noting 21 per cent of the inmate population is of aboriginal descent and nine per cent are black.

"Incarceration rates for these two groups far exceed their representation rates in Canadian society at large," Sapers notes, adding the number of federally incarcerated women has jumped by 40 per cent and aboriginal women by 80 per cent in the last five years.

In general, the federal in-custody population has increased by about 1,000 inmates — or about 6.8 per cent — in the last two years, and spending on federal corrections has jumped by nearly 44 per cent in between 2006 and 2011.

The average cost of keeping a federal inmate behind bars has increased from $88,000 in 2006 to more than $113,000 in 2010.