03/18/2015 05:43 EDT | Updated 05/18/2015 05:59 EDT

Self-harm incidents among female prisoners highest in Prairies

Reports of women cutting, strangling and burning themselves behind bars have skyrocketed since the inquest into Ashley Smith's death — with the most dramatic increase in prisons in the Prairies, where aboriginal offenders are held.

Figures obtained by CBC News under federal access to information laws show the total number of female "participants" in self-harm incidents has soared from 61 in 2004-05 to 608 last year — an increase of 896 per cent. The increase is most pronounced in the Prairies, where the number of incidents climbed to 396 from just four between 2004-05.

The most common methods of self-harm are cutting or slashing, burning, banging heads, self-strangulation, or ingesting objects.

Reports on the number of male inmates harming themselves have also increased, from 366 in 2004-05 to 673 last year, according to the records from the Correctional Service of Canada (CSC).

The documents also list the number of suicides in penitentiaries — but all of the figures have been blacked out, citing "personal information."

Ashley Smith highlighted self-injury issue

Self-injury emerged as a pressing issue after 19-year-old prisoner Ashley Smith choked herself to death in a segregation cell in 2007. The subsequent coroner's inquest and Correctional Investigator of Canada Howard Sapers have made repeated recommendations to address the issue — but little has been done.

Sapers said overcrowded conditions, limited programming and mental health problems are driving the spike in self-harm incidents.

"There's a lot of instability, a lot of crowding, a lot of competition for resources and for institutional employment and parole officers, for enrolment in correctional programs," Sapers told Rosemary Barton in an interview on CBC News Network's Power & Politics.

"Those are things that become harder to manage when the population is growing quickly and when that population has certain characteristics that make it difficult to manage."

He said the response to the 104 recommendations stemming from the Smith inquest was "largely unsatisfactory," and that the current prison climate puts inmates and staff at risk.

"It speaks directly to the ability of the correctional service to provide a safe environment. And when you see that, you have to be mindful that a safe environment for inmates in custody is also a safe environment for correctional staff to work," Sapers said.

"Properly running and managing a prison means paying attention to the institutional climate, because it also has direct impact on the health and safety of the staff. The best-run prisons are places where people feel safe to work and have the best outcomes in terms of offenders being properly prepared for release and safely returned into the community."

Self-injury, suicide 'horrifying'

Kim Pate, executive director of the Canadian Association of Elizabeth Fry Societies, said the rate of psychological, physical and mental deterioration among female prisoners is "astronomical" — conditions she says she has never seen in 30 years of working with offenders. The use of restraints and segregation exacerbates the already stressful, crowded prison environment.

​"It's hard to express in words how truly horrifying it is to literally watch women self-injuring, killing themselves, wasting away, dying psychologically and spiritually," she said.

The government launched a pilot program to partner with provinces to use mental health beds in the community, but Pate called for an urgent expansion and clear protocols to treat mentally ill prisoners as patients. In the Prairies, many aboriginal female prisoners — including some residential school survivors — are already struggling with past emotional, physical or sexual abuse, she said.

CSC spokeswoman Sara Parkes said the rise in numbers is due to a broadened definition and increased staff awareness of what constitutes self-harm. She also noted that a small number of individuals participate in recurring self-harm incidents.

"Self-injury is a complex concern that requires a comprehensive and multifaceted approach," she said.

"Because this behaviour is a symptom, not an illness itself, CSC manages each incident of self-injury, and more importantly, engages each individual in interventions that target the specific underlying cause," she said.

Last May, Public Safety Minister Steven Blaney announced a five-pillar mental health action plan for offenders in response to the Smith inquest. That strategy aims to improve assessment and management of inmates with mental illness, and includes more training and oversight.