Correctional Services Canada should update protocol, says new ombudsman report

A new report suggests that Correctional Services Canada needs to update their protocol on protecting women who practice self-harm chronically.

Six years after the suicide of 19 year-old Ashley Smith, a report released last week by Canada’s correctional investigator blames the federal prison system for being ‘ill equipped’ to deal with inmate self-injury.

Correctional investigators began their inquiry after the controversial death of inmate Ashley Smith, a woman with a history of mental illness and self-injury. The inquiry began as an investigation about preventable death in the federal prison system, which led to quarterly reports and dozens of recommendations to improve federal corrections for female offenders.

Particularly, the investigation looked at those who chronically practiced self-harm, according to Richard Zinger, Executive Director and General Councilman for the Office of the Correctional Investigator and a legal research professor at Carleton University. As specified by the final report, titled “Risky Business”, by ombudsman Howard Sapers, very little has changed in the six years since Smith died.

“What we found is that the situation of Ashley Smith, in terms of her treatment and how her self-harm was being managed, has not quite changed yet in federal corrections and that’s 6 years after her death and dozens of recommendations,” said Zinger.

The “Risky Business” report found that cases of chronic self-harm in federal corrections facilities for women in Canada had more than tripled. According to the report, the Correctional Services of Canada define self-injury as; “cutting, head banging (which in rare cases can lead to permanent disfigurement or brain damage), self-strangulation, burning, ingesting harmful objects and other forms of self-mutilation.”

Incidents of self-injury within Canadian correctional facilities are usually managed by force. “It is often responded to with placement in segregation, use of force, pepper spray and physical restraints,” said Zinger.

The report suggests that Correctional Services of Canada are not equipped to deal with women like Ashley Smith who have histories of mental illness and chronic self-injury. Sapers’ report stated that security staff generally overlooked situational factors, such as prior mental health considerations, when managing incidents of self-injury. The ombudsman recommended that chronic self-injury be treated and managed firstly as a mental health concern, as opposed to a security, compliance, behavioural or control problem.

According to Zinger, the report has received no response from Correctional Services Canada or the Minister of Public Safety to date.

“It’s a disappointment that it’s taking so long to affect change in corrections,” said Zinger.

To students looking to someday pursue careers in the field of corrections, Zinger suggests a temper of patience. “The harsh reality is that progress in correction is quite slow. You’ve got to persevere when you advocate for reforms.”

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