Bedlam Reborn – Canadian Prisons and Mental Health


There have been a sad series of articles in the Globe and Mail recently, but due to their enhanced comment mechanism it is now almost impossible to post a targeted comment. And in the best modern tradition, who do you call? and is it intentional?

But back to the point — the articles have been about the rising tide of mentally ill that are ‘flooding’ into the prison system, with terrible consequences. There is much hand wringing about the need for more funding and the mistaken apprehension by judges, it seems, that since there are no community mental health services any more that treatment can be obtained in prison. Not there either, if one reads these articles or depressing books about the prison system like ‘The Slammer’.

Lets face it. We are rebuilding the pre-Victorian world of combined prisons/mental hospitals like the infamous ‘Bedlam’. This is but a part of the drift into a more feudal society where most of the wealth goes into the hands of a few, with the blessings and assistance of the government, and there are two sets of laws — one for them and another, harsher code for the rest of us.

In Ontario, under the Harris conservatives, the system of residential mental hospitals that existed to care for those folks who could not function in society were dismantled. I think the handwave was that it was too expensive and the ‘community’ was better able to care for these people. Under the current government we continue to slash social programs and pare back acute care facilities so the mentally ill get even less. And the dedicated staff who work in these social services are just being ground into nothingness. But in healthcare it seems that there is always plenty of money for more bureaucracy, expensive consulting studies by people who are far removed from real work and of course lavish travel and retirement for ones with the best connections. Meanwhile, these ill people get less and less and sooner or later commit crimes and end up in prison.

If the person is smart, prison can be like a graduate school where their skills can be improved. And if not, they simmer until the end of their sentence, unless they die in prison. And so the cycle repeats.

Seems that like education in a broader sense, we don’t have the money to help people learn to cope and perhaps develop skills that will make them functioning members of society. But we have plenty of money to punish them when they fail to do so on their own. Note where the current Harper government is putting its money — prisons and war.

There is a general lack of empathy for the mentally ill in government circles. They are ignored until they become criminals, then thrown into the (expensive) prison to improve their skills and enhance their rage. And yes, violent offenders are likely to be mentally ill. So we systematically strip the mechanisms which earlier and more compassionate regimes had built up to address the problem. And we replace it with more expensive facilities that only exacerbate the problem. And the reason is that we cannot afford to head things off when they are relatively cheap but have plenty of money for expensive constraints later. A very curious sort of economy indeed.

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