The Current

Lack of treatment for prisoners with ADHD leads to recidivism, says advocate

If they were in school and suffering from ADHD, they'd likely be diagnosed and treated. But prisoners — youths and adults — usually go without. And some say that fixing that could go a long way to reducing recidivism.
A new study argues not only is ADHD prevalent in prisons but that screening and treating for it could do a lot to help people get out, and stay out of the criminal justice system. (Meesh/Flickr)

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During his teenage years, Sam was sent to juvenile detention centres five different times.

It was usually for offences like drug possession or getting into fights. But after a few times, a pattern emerged: Usually it had something to do with Sam's undiagnosed ADHD.

"I had a lot of difficulty keeping up with the school work," Sam tells The Current's guest host Piya Chattopadhyay.

"My attention span is so short that keeping up with the teacher is very difficult for me." He believes an earlier diagnosis might have kept him out of trouble. 

Sam's story mirrors many others in the Canadian prison system. Inmates in Canadian prisons are five times more likely to have ADHD than the rest of the population, according to a new study from the Centre for ADHD Awareness Canada.

Having ADHD makes a person more prone to poor decision making, impulse behaviour and emotional outbursts, all of which make it more likely for someone to end up in — and then stay in — the criminal justice system. 

Part of the problem is inadequate screening and treatment for ADHD in provincial prisons, says Heidi Bernhardt, president and executive director of the Centre for ADHD Awareness Canada. 
A new study suggests ADHD is hugely prevalent in Canadian prisons. (istock)

"Generally in most jail systems, psychiatrists that deal with inmates don't have much knowledge about ADHD. They don't understand it," Bernhardt tells Chattopadhyay.

"They're more focused on looking at substance abuse and suicide. But the interesting thing is we know when we don't diagnose the underlying ADHD, trying to treat those two disorders we're just spinning our wheels."

If prisons were to modernize their approach, Bernhardt says more money could be saved in the long run because treating ADHD leads to lower rates of recidivism and shorter sentences.

"We know when we treat, we get far better results. It's a win-win for everybody rather than punishment."

Ontario's Minister of Community Safety and Correctional Services, David Orazietti, defends the province's record.

"Our correctional institutions provide access to a variety of services and supports including health care, psychiatrists, psychologists and social workers, regardless of a diagnosis of a specific mental illness."

In a statement provided to The Current, Correctional Services Canada (Canada's federal prison agency) says they use the World Health Organization's Adult ADHD Self-Report Symptom Checklist (ASRS) as a tool to screen for ADHD.

Listen to the full conversation at the top of this web post.

This segment was produced by The Current's John Chipman, Marc Apollonio and Peggy Lam.