A mental trap
We appear to be a content, somewhat smug people, although we have slipped down on the United Nation’s “Best places to live” scale.
Someone looking at Canada from a distance could be deceived.For most of us life is easy — or is it?
Beneath this mask of sanctimony lies is a brutal reality: a large percentage of Canadian citizens are behind bars. Many of them are jailed for non-violent crimes and are at risk of developing or exacerbating mental illness.
Given Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s penchant for “tough on crime” legislation and prison privatization, it may not be long before for-profit corporations will control the billion-dollar prison supply-and-demand business.
In the United States, private companies such as Wackenhut Corrections, Corrections Corporation of America and U.S. Corrections Corporation are Wall Street stock darlings. Their lobbyists promise to cut costs while demanding mandatory minimum sentences for minor offenses. What Harper’s advisors ignore is that there has always been ambiguity around mental illness and criminality. Some confusion stems from the complexity and nebulous character of most psychological impairments. There is also the problem of the glaring lack of hard facts about the person’s mental state at the time of the alleged crime.
Difficulty also arises from the unreliable correspondence between fine legal distinctions and our psychological knowledge. Finally, there are serious questions regarding how appropriate it is to apply medical considerations to issues of morality and crime.
With budget cuts, continued deinstitutionalization and the diminishing number of hospital beds, many chronically ill psychiatric patients are now homeless or enmeshed in the criminal justice system. If mental hospitals become de facto extensions of the prison system, hospital administrators may become more security-minded, and will give more attention to fences and locked doors and less attention to the dynamics of rehabilitation.
So we insist on our pretensions to pluralism and those compelling populist, libertarian ideals, and yet we remain a punitive and intolerant people, confusing professional care with social control and compassion with greed.