B.C. prisons lock mentally-ill offenders in isolation

Advocates for prisoners’ rights argue the province’s correctional system is inadequately equipped to care for inmates identified as struggling with mental-health challenges.

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      When Chris Trotchie was asked to explain what it’s like to spend time in solitary confinement, it was as if he didn’t hear the question.

      The Surrey resident didn’t talk about North Fraser Pretrial Centre, where he’s currently waiting for a hearing on an assault charge. Instead, he told a story from the time he was five or six years old.

      “When I was younger, my stepmom used to abuse me, locking me under the stairs in a crawlspace,” he recounted in a telephone interview. “There were bugs in there and it was dark. And she would make me sit in there, sometimes for six or seven hours.”

      Trotchie, now 27, returned to the present a few moments later. “When I’m in that cell, I feel like I’m that kid again, locked in that crawlspace.”

      The Straight connected with Trotchie on his first day out of one month spent in solitary confinement, or administrative segregation, as it’s officially known in B.C. Corrections facilities. He said he harmed himself twice during those weeks.

      “I’m pretty depressed right now,” Trotchie acknowledged. “But I don’t hurt myself to try to kill myself. I use it more as a coping mechanism. It kind of grounds me and brings me back from my flashbacks. It brings me back to the present.”

      Advocates for prisoners’ rights argue the province’s correctional system is inadequately equipped to care for inmates like Trotchie, whom authorities have identified as struggling with mental-health challenges. Now, a September 2014 report by the Office of the Correctional Investigator—which acts as an ombudsman for federal prisons—presents new findings related to inmates’ mental-health needs, solitary confinement, and prisoners’ susceptibility to self-harm.

      “A major finding of this review, one that is repeatedly supported by the literature, is that suicide rates are more prevalent in physically isolated cells,” it states. “As this Office has long advocated, long-term segregation of mentally disordered inmates or those at risk of suicide or serious self-injury should be prohibited.”

      Unlike the federal system, there is no independent watchdog keeping an eye on North Fraser Pretrial Centre or the eight other prisons that fall under the jurisdiction of B.C. Corrections.

      According to a Ministry of Justice website dated January 2013, 56 percent of offenders admitted into provincial institutions were identified as having a substance-abuse and/or mental-illness disorder.

      In Vancouver, during the first six months of 2014, police made 1,470 apprehensions under the Mental Health Act. That number marks a five-year high for the period of January 1 to June 30. Not all of those incidents ended with an individual entering a provincial prison, but the statistics suggest that more mentally ill individuals are finding themselves in the custody of the justice system.

      No support inside

      Jennifer Metcalfe is executive director of the West Coast Prison Justice Society, which provides legal assistance to people inside B.C. prisons. That vantage point has let her observe deficiencies that she argues hurt people who struggle with mental illness.

      Metcalfe pointed to sections 17 and 18 of the B.C. Correction Act Regulation, which allow for an inmate to be confined separately if there are “reasonable grounds” to believe he “suffers from a mental illness”.

      “People with mental illness should be provided therapeutic treatment to recover and not put in isolation,” Metcalfe said. She’s called for those stipulations to be removed from legislation.

      Describing another example, Metcalfe said that Trotchie recently agreed to a “behavioural plan” that punishes him for self-harming behaviour. If Trotchie hurts himself, guards can place him in solitary confinement, which, Metcalfe emphasized, contributes to deteriorating mental-health conditions.

      “He’s being punished for using a coping mechanism to deal with his trauma,” she said.

      Metcalfe added that provincial prisons are filled with people serving shorter sentences for mostly nonviolent offences.

      “It should be an opportunity to intervene and to help them heal,” she said. “Instead, we’re putting them in segregation, where mental disabilities just get worse.”

      A poem by Chris Trotchie describes his time in solitary confinement.

      The B.C. Ministry of Justice did not make a representative available for an interview. A government website emphasizes that B.C. Corrections is the only penal system in Canada that employs a dedicated director of mental-health services. It states that every inmate receives a mental-health screening upon arrival at an institution and, when required, prisoners are referred to health professionals such as a psychologist.

      Little support outside

      In a telephone interview, Trotchie’s father, James, told the Straight he worries about what will happen to his son when he’s released from prison.

      Trotchie’s mother was murdered when he was just elleven. James counted 13 foster homes that the boy went through before he was returned to the custody of his family. As soon as Trotchie was old enough to enter juvenile detention facilities, that’s where he ended up.

      “He’s 27 years old now,” James said. “Since he’s been 12, I bet you Christopher’s been on the street a total—a total—of maybe one year. As soon as he gets out, he’s back to it. And the reason for that is, he gets released with no plan, no medication—nothing. It’s like they’re setting him up.”

      There are a number of reintegration-support services available in Vancouver. They’re mostly concentrated in the Downtown Eastside, subtly integrated into single-room-occupancy hotels (SROs) and occupying nondescript street-level offices.

      One of the older ones is Lookout Emergency Aid Society, which helps released offenders with housing, vocational training, and employment.

      Interviewed at his office on Powell Street near Oppenheimer Park, Lookout’s residential manager, Richard Marquez, said most reintegration services’ funding is spread too thin, especially where mental-health services are concerned.

      “They don’t have a lot of medical or psychiatric staff available to them because it’s too damn expensive,” he explained. “You’re talking about $150 an hour for a psych’s time.”

      Marquez recounted a number of stories that demonstrate the extent to which many inmates are released from prison and immediately set on a path back to jail.

      “I’ve actually picked up people from Fraser Regional [Correctional] Centre where nobody is there to meet them,” he said. “It was like, ‘Your time is up; your sentence is served. Good luck.’ ”

      Marquez called a release without support a “prison poverty cycle”.

      He told another story: “This impoverished parolee is a seven-time property offender. And he was released with no housing plan to the free world and was homeless. Talk about predicting reoffending scenarios for this powerless individual.”

      Marquez described housing as “the greatest deterrent to prevent recidivism”.

      That message was echoed by Michelle Fortin, executive director of Watari Counselling and Support Services Society. Her organization operates a program called the Vancouver Intensive Supervision Unit (VISU), which deals specifically with the reintegration of offenders with mental-health needs.

      Fortin said that Watari works with about 60 such offenders. She boasted that they’re currently all in housing but added that reintegration requires more than simply finding somebody a space in an SRO.

      “The reality is, these really are the very, very hard to house,” Fortin explained. “But part of the reason they are tough cases is they’ve not necessarily had an opportunity to live in a less chaotic setting.”

      To that end, she continued, VISU staff stay in close touch with clients as well as their landlords, working to stabilize an individual’s housing situation so that they can then concentrate on matters like employment.

      “People make gains,” Fortin said. “They might not be gains that other people see as being valuable, but anything forward is better than what was happening yesterday.”

      James said he knows his son will need support after he’s released from prison, but he openly expressed fear that Trotchie won’t receive it.

      “He can’t seem to stay out long enough to get something solid, something cemented on the ground,” James said. “I think they’re giving Christopher just enough rope to hang himself.”

      Are you in distress? You can contact the Crisis Intervention and Suicide Prevention Centre of BC at 604.872.3311 or toll free at  1.866.661.3311.

      Chasing a crisis
      This article is the fourth in a six-part series.
      Part one: Vancouver police still seeking help to prevent a mental-health crisis
      Part two: Amid a mental-health crisis, Vancouver care providers revisit the debate on institutionalization
      Part three: Vancouver service providers fail to get ahead of a mental-health crisis
      Part four: B.C. prisons lock mentally-ill offenders in isolation
      Part five: Vancouver's ill and addicted lost in a mental-health care maze
      Part six: Deaths involving police reveal a long pattern of mental illness and addiction

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      Boris Moris

      Oct 1, 2014 at 9:25pm

      This brutal lack of resources also results in absurd levels of child poverty and public education being bled dry. How could this be, you ask? We have such an abundance of natural resources. The answer is quite simple. We have been governed by a parade of thieves who make cozy deals with large resource extractors. Next to nothing is charged in royalties/stumpage fees and even less taxes are collected plus tax payers foot the bill for road building and toxic cleanups. In other words we are being screwed over royally. Lots of money for stadium roofs and convention centers, though. This is bedrock corruption that causes far too much suffering. Public assets sold off to US corporations owned by Republicans is a rather large clue. Another clue was what happened when the NDP tried to do things differently in the 1990s. Glen Clark's $1200 deck became the crime of the century and was on the front page for months. How is BC and its thoroughly corrupt corporate media any better than a third world failed state?

      Just say no


      Oct 2, 2014 at 7:54am

      Great comments Boris. I couldn't have said it better myself.

      Jason F

      Dec 25, 2014 at 4:19pm

      as a person who has sat beside Chris in pretrials, i am sad that he is still stuck in the revolving door of provincial pretrials in BC.. I too have been in most of the same places and it was only with the help i found in NCC and the Guthrie Therapeutic community treatment center within the prison walls, i would probably still be where Chris is.. I pray he finds some support and guidance towards this program if he ever ends up back inside.

      Anne Miles

      Feb 10, 2015 at 10:44am

      Another issue is that, when the gov't does anything at all about the "hard to house" (as they did when we had the Olympics) they place people with severe mental illnesses and/or addictions in subsidized housing for the elderly and disabled. Supervision is inadequate and sometimes the other residents are harassed and threatened by the "hard to house" individuals whom even the building managers may be intimidated by. So, subsidized housing for the mentally ill really needs to be separate from other disabled housing because mental illness involves behaviour that can include going off meds and using illegal drugs. Also supports in the community (ideally in the very same subsidized housing) are imperative if we want a viable alternative to either institutionalization or homelessness. Taking adequate care of people who are severely mentally ill, so that they act out less, would help dispel stigma for all those with a mental illness as there would be fewer horror stories in the media.