Mother tells of son’s despair on closure of Kingston Penitentiary

The author’s name has been withheld at her request

(copyright not obtained)

On Wednesday of last week, after having been away, I had a conversation with my son’s psychiatrist at the Regional Training Centre (RTC), attached to Kingston Penitentiary. I was inquiring about my son’s health.

For 4 years while on remand in the Ottawa Detention Centre, my son had been on anti-depressants and anti-psychotic drugs but due to lack of proper care became delusional and paranoid and was deemed too ill to stand trial.  He was moved back to the Royal Ottawa after a juried pre-trial hearing. Another year passed and in  November 2005 the sentencing judge ordered for him to be placed in a treatment facility.

“I saw him last week. He is doing about the same. He as been grooming and showering and has been out to yard. I have increased his dose by 25 mg. There was a concern as his TV and music was not working, but that is resolved now as the fault was due to construction and power outage.  He is put off by undue attention, so we’re keeping an eye on things. There is not much more to say at this time.”

The doctor’s words were a minor relief. I dread phone calls from the RTC and making calls to inquire about his health is a stressful endeavour.  I was anxious to visit soon, as I had not seen him in over 2 months. I thanked the doctor as she said I could call her for updates.

That was on Wednesday April 18.  On April 19, I was getting lunch when CBC radio announced the closure of Kingston Penitentiary, and the Regional Treatment Centre, and another institution, the name of which did not register, because of the shock of hearing the first two.

The few seconds of disbelief soon gave way to alarm and shock.

Lunch forgotten, I started to circle the kitchen, from the counter, to the phone, to the computer and back to the phone.  I dialled my friend’s number, asking for help in deciding where to turn, where to get information.  After leaving her a message, I quickly followed by dialling my M.P.’s office. The deputy answered the phone, and was caught by surprise at my question. He must have googled the press conference as we talked and had seen it in progress.  He assured me he would call back with details.

I phoned the Chaplain that I keep in contact with regarding my son. I left him a message on his cell phone.  I dialled the number for the RTC psychiatrist, who only works there on Tuesdays and Thursdays, and with whom I had spoken a day earlier. The phone rang and rang, and the voice mail did not come on for me to leave a message. I got the same results to a call to the parole officer. I then sent off an email expressing concern to a contact at the Correctional Investigator’s office.

The anxiety of waiting for information was mixed with concern for how my son will react to the news. How will he hear about it and what affect it will have on him. I have experience that he has a low threshold of tolerating distressing news.  My concern was also mixed with disbelief as I could not comprehend how, when there are reports of overcrowding and lack of spaces in care facilities, the inmates be accommodated and where would they be shipped off to.

Later that evening, I sent off a follow-up e-mail to Senator Bob Runcimen, expressing my concerns at the news. I had read that the Senator advocates that the mentally ill should not be incarcerated, but should be in secure hospital facilities.  I have been e-mailing him for help for my son’s chances for rehabilitation at a care facility in Ottawa, before his eligibility for parole.

There was nothing to do but sit and wait. The questions and concerns were mounting in my mind.  I needed to know where my son would be sent? Could he be merged with the general prison population? He would not be able to survive if that happened. Would he be sent away somewhere else across the country? Will I be able to visit him? Will his treatment continue or will he once again fall through the cracks as he had been since he was young, ill, and undiagnosed?   I emailed the list on our Community Adult Justice Network  (CAJN) list and alerted them to the news. “Does this even make sense??”  I asked.

Some responses came back expressing concern and shock but at this point everyone had the same information.  It seems all this is still at the planning stages. No one has answers to what they are going to do with the offenders and the staff.  Someone heard that there are a number of units being built in various institutions around the region that will house the KP and RTC populations. This country is going to ruins!!

Another email report.   In fact CSC is closing 3 pens.  I can’t believe this.  CBC already has a full story on their web site.

Another email said that there had been a news leak forcing the govt. to make the announcement before they could inform the staff.

The Correctional Investigator’s office responded with the assurance that the changes were not slated to take place overnight. They would not come into effect before 2013 and they would be keeping an eye on developments.  The MP’s assistant called back with the same information, now also public knowledge.

Of course, everyone was being very professional and doing their job to provide the information, but the truth was that no one had any prior information that they could share with the public. So the response that I should not worry for another year or so was not reassuring. My son will be eligible for day parole next year, and I need to know where he will be sent to rehabilitate towards a transition to parole.

The Chaplain called back. He had been on his way to the Pittsburgh institution.  When he got there he observed staff streaming towards one direction.  They were headed to hear an announcement. By this time, he had heard my phone message. He, too, promised to find out more and call me back.  It seems that all staff at all facilities were learning of the closures even as the press releases and media statements were being conducted.

My younger daughter called, distraught over the news and confused as to what it meant for her brother. She was afraid of the possibility of not being able to see or talk to her brother if he was transferred to another province.  I tried to reassure her and promised to follow up with information.

Over the day, more TV, radio and Internet sites were providing updates.  The implications of resulting changes started to sink in.

Where could the 140 or so inmates housed at the RTC possibly be moved? Whenever I have explored the possibility of my son moving to a care facility nearer for family contact, I have been told that is an impossible request to fulfill. There are no beds available, or the transfer from federal to provincial jurisdiction cannot be done. So, now, how will 140 mentally ill inmates be moved around and distributed among the few heavily over subscribed institutions?

The suddenness of the announcement has surprised so many people from so many sectors in these institutions. No thought seems to have been spared by the Minister of Safety, for the indelible negative effects of his decisions on the lives of thousands of men, women and children who are the professional staff and families of people in these institutions.

A better approach would have been to inform the public including staff at these institutions, about this significant undertaking. I am particularly concerned about the negative climate that may have resulted among the professionals and workers whose jobs and lives will be affected by the changes. Most of all, I am afraid that the vulnerable inmates at RTC including my son are in distress over the news. On Saturday, April 21 my son called at 6.p.m. I was happy to hear his voice and said hello. In response, this is what he said : “I am calling to say goodbye mom, I don’t know if I will ever come out of this place alive…”

I am not sure what the source of his agony was, but I later confirmed from the psychiatrist and a supervisor, that my son’s health had deteriorated since I last talked to the psychiatrist only 3 days earlier.

Over the last 11 years, there have been recurring episodes of crisis. Thankfully, they get resolved with the help of psychiatrists and nursing staff at RTC. With the imminent cuts in staff, I may not have this personal contact with the current part-time psychiatrist at RTC, This is very worrying. My daughter and I fervently hope that for people like my son, a humane and compassionate resolution will be found and that families will not be further traumatized with such decisions that are beyond their control.