10/23/2012 02:39 EDT | Updated 12/23/2012 05:12 EST

Number of prisoners harming themselves triples in five years: report

OTTAWA - The number of prisoners harming themselves in federal penitentiaries has almost tripled in the last five years, says a new study from the federal correction investigator.

Overcrowding, longer sentences, the warehousing of the mentally ill in prisons and a corrections mentality too focused on security and not enough on rehabilitation are all factors in a complex, growing problem, Howard Sapers said Tuesday as he delivered his eighth annual report.

His investigations show that aboriginal offenders and women are most likely to abuse themselves by cutting, self strangulation, head-banging, burning and ingesting harmful objects or substances.

And the Correctional Service of Canada continues to treat such incidents as security problems rather than mental-health issues, said Sapers, which can make problems worse.

"There are safe places to put these people where they will receive the treatment that they need as opposed to just holding them in a cage and occasionally pepper-spraying them or putting them in restraints," Sapers said at a news conference.

The correctional investigator gave examples of an inmate who has been fitted with a helmet because he continues to pound his head against a wall, and a woman in Saskatoon for whom the corrections service has built its first padded cell.

"Many have argued that some of those folks, while they may have been convicted of a crime, are really more patients than offenders," said Sapers. "Some are acutely mentally ill and they should be in health-care facilities."

Prime Minister Stephen Harper, asked about the report in the House of Commons, said his government is "more than aware of mental health challenges that impact upon the prison population and upon criminal justice issues."

"The government is making significant investments to deal with these problems," said Harper.

But Sapers says he's been sounding the alarm on rising prisoner self harm for years and little has changed in the corrections service, except the scope of the problem.

"The response to that growth (in numbers) has been to try to do more of the same, which isn't working," said the corrections investigator.

His report comes as Canada's penitentiary population hits an all-time high of more than 15,000 federal inmates.

Sapers says there's far too much emphasis in the corrections system on warehousing prisoners in secure surroundings and not nearly enough on preparing convicts for their eventual release back into society.

Prisons have become harsher places, says Sapers, crowded with longer-term, older offenders and a system that he says is "criminalizing mental health issues" — all contributing factors in the sharply rising numbers of self-harming prisoners.

He's recommending a complete ban on placing suicidal or self-harming prisoners in long-term segregation and wants to see prisoners with mental-health problems moved to secure hospital settings where they can be properly treated.

New Democrats claimed that Sapers' report shows the Conservative government's harsh criminal justice policies are actually making Canadians less safe.

"I think that the Conservatives should become smart on crime instead of pretending to be tough on crime because if we don't act on the causes and we don't have a system for getting people better, we're just going to continue filling up prisons," said NDP Leader Tom Mulcair.