The Conditions We Subject Our Mentally Ill Prisoners To

Last month, it was my privilege to attend a panel discussion organized by SFU Public Square featuring Howard Sapers, the current Correctional Investigator of Canada. The topic followed along the lines of his latest report which testified to our current justice system being riddled with mental health problems and addiction.

I won’t run through the entirety of his findings since the broadcast of the talk was recorded on video but some of the points he raised were dismaying. The lack of competent staff to assist individuals suffering from mental health issues along with the sheer numbers being thrown out made me question whether our federally-regulated prisons can, in any shape or form, be considered fit for habitation. The inadequate support after release was also found to be insufficient and it quickly prompted memories of my days volunteering with the John Howard Society last year. We’ve reached the root of the problem, folks.

The topic of co-occurring disorders was also breached by Mae Burrows from Grief to Action, an agency organized by the parents of individuals suffering from addictions. She emphasized the importance of humanizing people with addictions and dispelling the stigma that is so rampant in society. One of the most heart-rending moments of the dialogue involved a couple in the audience who recounted the story of their incarcerated son. He was denied medical attention and subjugated to persisting neglect after suffering from a mental break during which he sustained an injury. It was also particularly astonishing to me that he had been penalized for refusing methadone (he wanted to quit his heroin addiction without resorting to other opioids), being told that his refusal would be considered ‘bad behaviour’. The parents, holding each others’ hands, grieving for their son’s condition served as a tragic example. Their situation epitomized the treatment that our prisoners are being subjected to by a regulating body that seemingly doesn’t have much interest in maintaining their well-being.

A link to a relevant section within Sapers’ current annual report can be found here and I encourage anyone interested in the subject to hear what was being said that night:

(Credit: SFU Public Square)

Contributions for the event were given to the Mary Steinhauser Memorial Bursary for SFU Aboriginal Undergraduate Students in Arts & Social Sciences.

Juvenile Justice

We talked about children in the criminal justice system today. I’m a big proponent of restorative justice and that heavily played into my outlook on the topic of discussion.
Additionally, my criminological background has given me certain insight into why crime occurs and the sort of individuals who cause and are victims of crimes. When it comes to juvenile offending, these are just some things that I know to be true…

  • Youth crime is largely a result of socioeconomic factors
  • The levels of crime committed by male youth peak in their teenage and early adult years and steadily declines afterwards
  • Punishment and incarceration are not effective deterrence and, very often, they lead to a cycle of disruption and social exclusion in a child’s life- this is difficult to recover from

Keeping this in mind, it’s important to acknowledge that imprisoning young offenders does nothing for us, nothing for them and nothing for society as a whole. If anything, it traps them and hinders their development. We cannot raise active and law-abiding citizens within the justice system that we have today.
The biggest concern lies within a marginalized population- the poor (usually minority) child who is growing up in a stressful environment with inadequate care. This is the child that suffers the most from arbitrary and damaging judicial decisions and processes.
These concepts are difficult for the public at large to understand. It’s easier to vilify offending children and their parents instead of taking a reconciliatory and restorative approach to these issues.
During the Vancouver riots in 2011 following the loss of the Vancouver Canucks hockey team from the Stanley Cup playoffs, there was a frenzied witch-hunt of sorts that targeted teenagers and young adults for their participation in the riots.
These types of scenarios perpetuate the modern impression of youth as dangerous and immoral. Portraying them as deviants, in this fashion, does nothing but exclude them from mainstream society and alienate them- which, understandably, doesn’t help discourage them from a life of crime.
This is one of the reasons why I was impressed to see CommCRC’s General Comment 10 which emphasized the importance of raising awareness and diminishing the perception that youth are troublemakers and generally harmful towards others. We cannot ask youth to obey the law and, at the same time, demonize them in the social sphere. State, individual and group actions that strive to pursue and fulfill the committee’s recommendations are commendable:

Children who commit offenses are often subject to negative publicity in the media, which contributes to a discriminatory and negative stereotyping of these children and often of children in general. This negative presentation or criminalization of child offenders is often based on misrepresentation and/or misunderstanding of the causes of juvenile delinquency, and results regularly in a call for a tougher approach (e.g. zero-tolerance, three strikes and you are out, mandatory sentences, trial in adult courts and other primarily punitive measures). To create a positive environment for a better understanding of the root causes of juvenile delinquency and a rights-based approach to this social problem, the States parties should conduct, promote and/or support educational and other campaigns to raise awareness of the need and the obligation to deal with children alleged of violating the penal law in accordance with the spirit and the letter of CRC. In this regard, the States parties should seek the active and positive involvement of members of parliament, NGOs and the media, and support their efforts in the improvement of the understanding of a rights-based approach to children who have been or are in conflict with the penal law. It is crucial for children, in particular those who have experience with the juvenile justice system, to be involved in these awareness-raising efforts.
(Source: CRC.C.GC.10/96)

If we want our children and youth to stop committing crimes, we need to engage them in public discourse and start propagating a new conception of young people among adults- one that comprehensively identifies and acknowledges the different stages of childhood from a developmental perspective. This is incredibly important if we hope to raise principled citizens who can contribute positively to the community.