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Prison system must change its approach to self-harming prisoners: ombudsman

The Kingston Penitentiary is shown in an April 19, 2012 photo. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Lars Hagberg

The number of self-injury incidents in federal penitentiaries has more than tripled since teenager Ashley Smith choked to death in a prison cell in 2007, a federal ombudsman says.

A report from the Correctional Investigator of Canada says there were 901 incidents of recorded prison self-injury involving 264 offenders in 2012-13.

Self-injury, including cutting, head-banging and self-strangulation, involves inordinate numbers of aboriginal women inmates, says the study released Monday.

Aboriginal women accounted for nearly 45 per cent of all self-injury incidents involving female prisoners.

Pepper spray, physical handling and restraints are commonly used in an attempt to stop, interrupt or prevent prison self-injury, the study found.

However, these approaches often simply contain or reduce the immediate risk of harm, it says. They do not — nor are they intended to — deal with the underlying symptoms of mental illness apparent in many cases.

In addition, such offenders are frequently removed from the main prison population, even though isolating an inmate can accelerate the harmful behaviour, the study says.

“Self-injurious offenders are hesitant to disclose thoughts of self-harm for fear of punishment or placement in segregation.”

Of the 264 federal offenders who hurt themselves last year, 17 individuals — including nine women — accounted for 40 per cent of incidents.

The report said prisons are ill-equipped to safely manage the complex mental health needs of federally sentenced women who chronically self-injure, yet the Correctional Service of Canada makes limited use of transfer of complex-needs cases to external psychiatric facilities.

The report recommends the prison system end the practice of putting at-risk inmates in solitary confinement and transfer the most troubled cases to community psychiatric facilities.