We all know that prisons are too often warehouses for those amongst us suffering addictions or mental health problems. The actual numbers, however, are harrowing. In federal penitentiaries 11% of prisoners have some sort of mental health diagnosis and 21.3% take prescription anti-psychotics on admission. Almost 15% of male prisoners, at some point prior to their incarceration, had a psychiatric hospitalization; the number almost doubles for women. The suicide rate in prisons is seven times the rate outside of prisons; as is the rate of people hurting themselves in prisons. All this and more can be found in a report issued by the Office of the Correctional Investigator last week. The punch line: “The mental health needs of offenders exceed the capacity, services and supports of the federal correctional authority to meet the growing demand.”
That’s true in Canada, too. Canadian Elizabeth Fry society executive director Kim Pate argues that the massive cuts made to the welfare state in the 1990s and 1980s particularly affected women. It’s no coincidence, she says, that mentally ill, poor and racialized women were imprisoned just as support services were scaled back.
It used to be (as of February of this year) that those convicted of crimes and sentenced to prison would receive a 2-for-1 credit for the time they spent in jail awaiting trial. Jails, unlike prisons, are notoriously overcrowded, dirty and dangerous. The 2-for-1 credit was an explicit acknowledgement from judges that prisoners remanded to jail suffered inordinately. The Conservative government, however, disagreed and last year passed the Truth in Sentencing Act. An internal Corrections Canada report, obtained by the Canadian Press, finds that, as a result of the new law, Indigenous individuals, low-income people, and people with low literacy are spending much more time in prison.
For comparison’s sake, on the eve of the Second World War there were 1.3 million people in Stalin’s gulags. 3.2% of America’s adult population, or 1 in every 31 adults, is in jail, on probation or on parole. The rate of incarceration for black men is four times that of white men. If prisoners, who are generally idle, were counted in unemployment figures along with discouraged workers the United State’s unemployment rate would jump two percent. The number of people in prisons in the United States has increased roughly ten times over since the 1960s. Canada’s incarceration rates are lower but have jumped in similar proportions over the past four decades.