Prescription for the justice system

Brodie Thomas
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Last week the province’s Justice Minister, Felix Collins, received an external peer review of psychiatric services within the Newfoundland and Labrador corrections department.

In 2011 the Office of the Citizen’s Representative (your provincial ombudsman) noted some potential problems with mental health care for inmates.

The main problem, according to critics, is that the psychiatrist who sees most inmates has been taking them off doctor-prescribed medication for their mental illness.

It’s easy to say “too bad, so sad” in situations like this. People are put in prison for breaking laws, and the attitude of many is to say, “They should’ve thought of that before they committed the crime.”

But mental health is a topic that is still relatively new in Canada. Until recently, mental illness was often seen as some sort of moral failing on the part of the individual, rather than a medical problem to be treated as one would treat diabetes or high blood pressure.

A diabetic car thief is still a diabetic. Taking away his insulin would be cruel and unusual. It would probably kill him. As a society, we just wouldn’t do that.

So why is the province taking away medication prescribed to treat mental health issues in inmates. How is the brain different from the pancreas?

The vast majority of people with mental health issues are not criminals. Lots of people with mental illness lead normal, peaceful lives. But many people in the criminal justice system are there, in part, because of mental health issues.

Again, the gut reaction of many is to say, “Oh sure, blame it on something beyond their control. Coddle the criminals.” Really, we should be looking at this as a cost effective fix. Why should we as taxpayers pay over a hundreds thousand dollars a year to keep someone behind bars when in many cases a thousand dollar prescription and weekly support from a counselor will address the problem?

The key in all this is providing the support before crimes are committed. However, taking away medications after the fact is a backwards and vindictive move by the province. It’s merely pouring salt on the wound.

The public hasn’t seen the independent report yet, but it would be surprising if it supports the practice of taking away inmates’ mental health medication. Commissioning a costly report probably wasn’t the best move when - in this case - the problem is so obvious.

Hopefully the province will move forward on this one issue. Giving inmates their medication won’t amount to a magic pill that will stop all crime, but it will be a step in the right direction.

@Tagline: Brodie

Organizations: Office of the Citizen

Geographic location: Canada

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