Access on the Inside


Criminal Offenders with Disabilities

There’s a middle-aged man in prison whom Steve Orr, executive director of the John Howard Society of Kingston, tries to talk to on the phone once a week. A federally sentenced offender with disabilities, including an intellectual disability, a probable mental health disability and a speech disorder, this man spends his days isolated in a small cell, let out for only an hour to shower.

Charged with grabbing at guards’ clothing and buttocks, spitting and lashing out at people who try to get close to him, Orr acknowledges that he’s “very disruptive… probably very difficult to work with.” At one time he had a TV, Orr says, but it broke. “There’s nothing but the cell, day after day,” says Orr of the man who reads and writes at a grade one level – if that – and has no concept of why he is in prison or what it takes to get out.

“His condition has been exacerbated by spending years in that cell,” Orr maintains. “He will serve every day of his sentence in that cell,” with no chance for the “gradual release” that most able-bodied prisoners have access to. After his sentence is over, Orr says, “I suspect they’ll transfer him to a psych hospital.” As for the question of whether he’ll ever even live in the community, says Orr, “It’s hard to know, because we don’t know how well he’d do with treatment.”

Steve Orr comes into contact with a lot of offenders in his work for the John Howard Society, whose mission is to provide “effective, just and humane responses to the causes and consequences of crime.” The typical profile of an offender, he says, is of someone with a background of family violence and/or family disruption, who is disadvantaged, often with mental health or substance abuse problems, and often with a learning disability, and who has a poor education and work history. The whole spectrum of disabilities are also represented among the offender population, from wheelchair users to people with sensory disabilities, and intellectual or mental disabilities.

With the greatest increase in admissions to the federal correctional system predicted to be from the over-forty age group, and with the number of long-term offenders growing, disabilities related to aging are becoming more prevalent among the prison population. And prisons are already dealing with the fallout from what the Canadian Mental Health Association Ontario website calls “the insufficient and under-funded local mental health services” that have “forced police to take on the role of community mental health worker.” The same website indicates that “approximately 20 per cent of the prison population has a mental illness” and “five to eight per cent are seriously mentally ill.”

Life on the inside of Canada’s prisons is not easy for offenders with disabilities. There’s a lack of appropriate medical therapy for mental health and other disability-related conditions, a lack of awareness and education about disabilities among many prison guards and Correctional Service Canada (CSC) staff, and a vulnerability to abuse from other members of the prison population.

Not all federal institutions, which house offenders who are sentenced to terms of two years or more, are wheelchair accessible. And accessibility, in general, always has to be weighed against the security risk. With a higher degree of security (in maximum- compared to minimum-security prisons) comes a decrease in accessibility, according to Steve Orr.

That’s a familiar problem to Ron Mullett, a paraplegic who has been incarcerated since 2002 for drug trafficking. Springhill Penitentiary in Nova Scotia, where he would have served his term if he were able-bodied, is not accessible, so he’s doing his time at Dorchester, in New Brunswick – but he says even that is “pretty rough… It’s not quite wheelchair accessible here.”

The chapel, where self-help groups such as Narcotics Anonymous meet, can’t be reached in a wheelchair; and, says Mullett, “Yesterday I had to go to the community centre in the main part of the jail. There was a lift, but no one knew how to operate it.” His own cell has grab bars near the toilet, but, says Mullett, the only cell that’s completely wheelchair accessible is in segregation.

At least, for now, his cell is his own. “I have to catheterize myself, do my bowel routine,” he says, and he feels he needs the privacy of his own cell to do it. But he’s constantly stressed because he believes staff view his disability as an “inconvenience” and they “keep trying to put people in with me.”

Due to financial restraints, Mullett also has to reuse catheters. In the past, he says, he delivered them back to the health care department and was told he would receive his own catheters back, cleaned and ready to use. But another inmate who uses catheters marked his with a razor blade to see whether anyone else received them. Mullett did. Now he washes his own catheters out. “Money shouldn’t overcome our health,” he says.

That said, there are some programs within the correctional system, and out in the community, helping offenders with disabilities and chronic illnesses. Chilliwack County Corrections Centre in British Columbia offers a Relief Program that acting director Debbie Golden believes is unique in the province.

Under this program, able-bodied offenders assist federally sentenced men with disabilities according to their health and daily living needs. A relief coordinator with a background in mental health or registered nursing assesses the needs of inmates, whether they be life skills or help with a feeding tube. Able-bodied offenders on statutory release or parole apply to live and work at Chilliwack for $4 a day, assisting inmates with conditions ranging from mental health disabilities to terminal cancer, until the National Parole Board decides they can be released into the community.

“You see a lot more compassion on behalf of the offenders who are giving the care, and on behalf of the offenders who receive the care,” says Golden.

Shepody Healing Centre is another place where offenders with disabilities receive services tailored to their needs. The CSC regional treatment centre, co-located with Dorchester Penitentiary, has 40 beds for inmates with mental health disorders and six physical care beds, and is a recognized psychiatric facility in New Brunswick. Dialectical Behaviour Therapy (DBT) is used to teach inmates how to respond to stressors effectively, as opposed to ways that barred them from attending programs in prison or from being given conditional release. Classes in mental health awareness, anger control and stress management, life skills and even art and zoo therapy round out the eight-month program.

“These are people who can’t cope in the regular institution because of mental health problems,” says Shepody’s executive director, Luc Doucet, who claims DBT has proven successful in helping offenders with disabilities return to regular prison life or obtain a security reclassification.

But people like Orr think that CSC’s regional treatment centres are no place for people with mental health disabilities. In fact, in 2002, The John Howard Society of Kingston lodged a complaint with the Canadian Human Rights Commission stating that prisoners with mental health disabilities are not provided with a therapeutic environment and access to adequate mental health treatment, and are subject to more restrictive conditions of confinement than is authorized by the Corrections and Conditional Release Act (CCRA). Concerned about various issues from the punitive use of segregation and the lack of employment and recreation to the use of coercion and intimidation with respect to medication compliance, the John Howard Society laments that these factors also contribute to preventing “realistic prospects of parole” for many offenders with mental health disorders.

DisAbled Women’s Network Canada and the Elizabeth Fry Society, which works with women in conflict with the law, have also complained to the Human Rights Commission about discrimination against women with disabilities in prison, and in particular about CCRA’s equating “mental disability” with security risk.

Prison life is not gentle or kind, and offenders with disabilities are not likely to advocate for themselves. Says CSC correctional program officer, Mike Lavers, “In the correctional environment, disclosing a disability could be deadly.” Orr says prisoners with disabilities “learn to conform, to be quiet, not to be seen,” and that they are vulnerable to mistreatment both by other prisoners and by corrections staff.

But life on the outside is not so easy, either. Dave MacKenzie, senior lifeline inreach worker for Genesis Lifeline, Atlantic Region, knows that firsthand. He’s on life parole himself, and works with other “lifers” and long-term offenders (many of them geriatric, or over 50), providing moral and emotional support, advice on how to serve their sentence, and mediation between offenders, corrections staff and community resources. He says offenders have trouble finding accessible housing within their budgets, something that parole officers may not have the time to search out for the offenders they work with. “Basically, we’re scrambling to look for help,” MacKenzie says.

One organization that used to provide that help to offenders with disabilities returning to the community was Opening Doors, a pilot project of the Independent Living Resource Centre (ILRC) in Halifax. For four years, before its CSC funding was cut, Opening Doors provided peer support, skills development, information, referrals and advocacy to offenders with disabilities in the community.

“Most of the guys and women had been in prison over and over again, due mostly to lack of support,” says Dawn Robia, former Opening Doors coordinator. “They just basically fell through the cracks.” She helped offenders with everything from finding apartments and obtaining identification and welfare to working on employment goals.

Robia thinks that there needs to be more supports in the community for offenders with disabilities, and that having access to more resources would deter people with disabilities from choosing a life of crime in the first place. Mike Lavers, the original Opening Doors coordinator, might agree. He has a reputation for helping offenders with disabilities, and says, “I’ve had five guys this month that said, ‘I wouldn’t have gone back to jail if I’d met you the last time I was out.’”

Opening Doors did a lot for John (last name withheld), a one-time offender in Halifax who is now doing well on the outside. A former “gangsta” with attention deficit disorder and other learning disabilities, he spent a total of about five years in the provincial correctional system for everything from breach of probation to assault. Inside, he says, “I saw people get beat up because they have disabilities,” but he was spared the teasing and violence because he had friends and family members in the prison population.

When he was ready to leave prison, John says he heard the guards were betting that he would be back. “It hurt at the time,” he says, but it also spurred him to look for help to turn his life around. “Opening Doors gave me the skills to look at getting a job and being on time,” he says, and volunteering with the ILRC helped him practise those skills. Now he has a job as a carpenter helper and is planning to get married next year.

“They never once judged me for my past or my crimes,” John says of Opening Doors and the ILRC. “They never gave up on me.”

(Anna Quon is a freelance writer living in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia.)


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