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.

Learning About Housing First

I managed to pop into the Gordon Avenue Supportive Housing and Emergency Shelter open house at Coquitlam City Hall last night. I didn’t have much time to look around since I had to run to the Golden Spike Days Society AGM but from what I observed, the architectural plans and programming seem to be on track and the hosts (which included staff from the City, BC Housing and representatives of RainCity Housing, the non-profit organization responsible for operating the project) were optimistic about an early 2015 opening day. Some of the plans can be found here. They’re quite thorough and include some definitional terms that the general public may be unaware of (i.e. the difference between transitional housing and shelters). I’m glad I’ve had the opportunity to check it out because it falls in line with what I’ve been researching for the past little while.

I’ve recently been reading more about Housing First through chapters of an ebook after addressing it in my dissertation as a means to ending further violations of human rights- basically, the idea being that the provision of housing to the homeless, without any conditional factors, can improve their human rights and well being. It is in contrast to a treatment-first approach where treatment for substance abuse or mental illness is given before being moved into stable accommodation. These are the elements of the Housing First philosophy (Homelessness Hub):

  1. No housing readiness requirements. Individuals and families are not required to first demonstrate that they are ‘ready’ for housing. This approach runs in contrast to what has been the orthodoxy of ‘treatment first’ for homelessness, which suggested that people who are homeless should be placed in emergency services until they are ‘ready’ for housing (having received access to health care or treatment).
  2. Choice. Key here is the idea that clients are able to exercise some choice regarding the location and type of housing they receive. As we will see below, choice may be constrained by local availability and affordability.
  3. Individualized support services. Some people, once housed, will need minimum supports, while other people will need supports for the rest of their lives, ranging from case management to assertive community treatment. A key philosophy of Housing First is that people have access to the supports they need, IF they choose.
  4. Harm Reduction. Harm reduction aims to reduce the risks and harmful effects associated with substance use and addictive behaviours for the individual, the community and society as a whole, without requiring abstinence. In Housing First, this means that absolute sobriety is not required (though as part of the spectrum of choices, people may choose ‘abstinence only’ housing) and a tenant cannot lose housing because of substance use.
  5. Social and community integration. Part of the Housing First strategy is to help people become socially integrated into their community and this requires socially supportive engagement and the opportunity to participate in meaningful activities. If people are housed and become or remain socially isolated, the stability of their housing may be undermined.

Canadian initiatives for the program are spread out throughout the country and are rapidly growing. Despite regional variations, all Housing First programs should be seen to comply with the core values of the program.

I understand that some may be initially skeptical about whether poor and marginalized individuals would be able to live independently without help but it’s important to realize that the principle of Housing First falls in line with the right to housing as embodied in ICESCR and ratified by our government. An essential part of implementing the program includes disseminating knowledge about it which may include myth-busting. Especially in regards to reports of failures, stereotypes about the ability of those needing help to remain in secure housing and some forms of NIMBYism. It’s helpful to assert that Housing First works.

But it doesn’t end at the provision of housing- establishing steady housing seems to be in line with harm reduction philosophies. The provision of services through staff and partnerships provide the rehabilitation and integration part of the program. Team interventions are the essential part of most programs which progress the ‘treatment’ stage of Housing First by way of either Assertive Community Treatment (ACT), which consists of multidisciplinary support teams accessible to individuals, or Intensive Case Management, which takes a case management approach to developing integration plan. As described in RainCity Housing’s newsletter, they’ve been active in establishing ACTs team which has positively influenced the lives of many of their clients. Wes, a participant in the program asserted that it brought him “out of despair” and was elemental in providing him with the tools to secure an occupation and give him the confidence speak out at public conferences about Housing First.

Of course, the most troublesome part of the program seems to be lack of affordable housing. Housing First proponents insist that consumer choice cannot be sacrificed, yet, how are we supposed to offer affordable housing when the prices of property in cities such as Vancouver are soaring. While Vancouver has attempted to implement the program within the city (with much success as seen at The Vivian), the report doesn’t deny that this will be challenging for future programs especially due to the initial costs. Of course, in terms of scattered housing, landlords can be brought on to the table with incentives such as guaranteed rent and damage coverage but it doesn’t help the problem at large. Learning about Housing First has encouraged me to view the current housing condition in Vancouver as positively disabling. While rental supplements can help some individuals, there’s no doubt that changes need to be made in the way housing is distributed among the city in order to make the most out of Housing First.

The Downtown Community and Drug Treatment Courts

The reason this blog has been blessed with the privilege of sustaining two posts in their entirety within a week is because I’m extremely enthusiastic about having the marvelous opportunity to visit the Provincial Court of British Columbia and Downtown Community Court with some fellow volunteers and staff of the John Howard Society of British Columbia. I arrived early in the morning which allowed me to spend some time loitering around Gastown (which I haven’t seen since Christmas)- it’s my favourite part of Vancouver, I had to mention it. I arrived at the courthouse and an introduction was provided by a representative of the Justice Education Society who gave us a quick rundown of the criminal justice system in the province (echoes of my criminology days) and the different types of cases heard in the provincial court, community court and drug treatment court respectively. The Downtown Community Court

At its core, the community court is about partnership and problem solving. It’s about creating new relationships, both within the justice system and with health and social services, community organizations, area residents, merchants, faith communities and schools… The community court is about testing new ways to reduce crime and improve public safety. It deals with offenders more quickly through a more co-ordinated and informed response.

This court is located on the backside of the provincial court, although through a separate entrance. There is definitely an advantage to being located so close to Main Street and I couldn’t help but notice the symbolic significance of this layout- it serves as an informal, backdoor way of dealing with repeat offenders who are wrought with problematic histories which often include mental illness and drug addiction. As our JES representative pressed, many of these individuals ended up being charged for theft of petty items such as cheese- which have a high resale value (reference to the low-cost pizza slice outlets scattered over the downtown core). A justice system that treats them like cookie-cutter criminals would be detrimental to their well-being along with that of the general public especially taking into consideration the systemic problems that are prevalent around the area. Hence, the community court. A somewhat-casual court system that complies with its rules but promotes an understanding, harm-reduction response to such crimes. We were lucky enough to visit while the court was presided by the Honourable Judge Thomas Gove, who initially proposed the creation of the court in Vancouver. Seeing him call up the accused and communicate directly to them was remarkable to see. There’s no doubt that this courtroom maintained a supportive and accessible atmosphere. I cringe at the thought of how an old, mentally ill panhandler would have fared in regular court. While we did notice how ‘disorganized’ the court seemed, we all agreed that it was well suited the area it served where restricted time slots and airtight rules would only result in further unnecessary legal ramifications for an already marginalized population. More information about the process can be found here along with some helpful videos that give you the gist of how the court works. The Drug Treatment Court of Vancouver The drug treatment court is a model that has proved to work miles in helping drug addicted offenders recover effectively (see here). It is used worldwide and I was surprised to learn that it carried the support of the current federal government. This probably the most remarkable thing I’ve heard today, but, as one of the lawyers (who kindly consented to being barraged with our questions) asserted, the science is practically unwavering. The court seemed more of a pep rally than actual proceedings but this shouldn’t be mistaken as being lenient on offenders. Judge Dillon emphasized that rehabilitation and recovery is an immensely demanding process and requires considerable sacrifice (which is monitored by way of frequent drug tests and stringent conditions). The prosecutor determines selection criteria and only a few individuals are permitted into this program which requires weekly court visits and is bolstered by rewards and praise for compliance. Crown counsel and defense collaborate to create a workable action plan for the accused and most of the decisions are made in a pretrial meeting between the counsel, judge and various case workers since hearing the occasional negative feedback could prove to be detrimental to the recovery of the individual who is encouraged to consider the members of the court as allies. The best part of the experience was seeing how, even while sitting in an adversarial system, all the counsel in the drug treatment and community courts seemed to work together to devise practical solutions. Aside from my own observations, more information about this court can be found here. We also managed to sit in on a robbery case and talk to some industrious Native Courtworkers who described the challenges faced by aboriginal offenders and the alternative justice measures that have been put into place in order to take their circumstances into account. I’m a large supporter of restorative justice so this element of the dialogue was very interesting to me- especially when she revealed the existence of a specialized First Nations court (guess who wants to drop by for a visit?) Overall, I was very grateful for the opportunity. It’s quite fascinating to see the things I’ve been reading about put into action. There’s always hope in progressive policy research… and good results too.