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B.C. announces new addiction and mental health supports for people leaving jail

The British Columbia government has announced inmates struggling with mental health and substance use will be supported after they leave jail by transition teams connected to all 10 of the province’s correctional centres.

Mental Health and Addictions Minister Sheila Malcolmson said Monday that’s an increase from inmates at five facilities getting help with services like housing, health care, transportation and treatment when they are released.

The length of time those services are offered will triple to 90 days, and Malcolmson said communities would benefit from less crime by former inmates who are supported in navigating the services they need.

“Often, people have lost homes, jobs, a family and some social skills during incarceration,” she told a news conference at the Vancouver Island Regional Correctional Centre.

“Starting over can be overwhelming and triggering. That’s why shortly after release from a correctional centre, people with substance use challenges are 12 times more likely to die of a toxic drug overdose,” she said.

More staff are being hired for expanded transition teams to include social workers, nurses, peer-support workers and so-called patient navigators who are Indigenous.

A pilot project has been underway since 2019 in Surrey, Prince George, Kamloops, Nanaimo and the Fraser Regional Correctional Centre in Maple Ridge, where a facility for women will now also have community transition teams.

‘We’re barely scratching the surface’

Former inmate Steve Pelland said he started using drugs and alcohol as a youth and ended up developing an addiction to opioids before overdosing several times while he was in and out of custody for over 20 years.

He was incarcerated at the Surrey Pretrial Services Centre about two years ago when a community transition team helped him create a release plan, said Pelland.

It included being driven to his treatment centre or when he wanted to visit family or attend medical appointments.

On Tuesday, he will be returning to the facility in Surrey, but in a different way.

“I’m starting as a peer-support worker with the [community transition team] program. When I was in pretrial, that’s the same team that I was helped by when I first got out.”

A B.C. Corrections officer enters the Surrey Pretrial Centre, one of 10 jails in the province that will see new supports for inmates leaving detention. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

Transition teams for inmates are being bolstered based on recommendations in a recent report by former Vancouver deputy police chief Doug LePard and Amanda Butler, an expert on mental health and the criminal justice system.

Expanded services are a positive move for those who often feel stigmatized and isolated because of concurrent mental health and substance use issues, which make dealing with a notoriously difficult-to-navigate treatment system all the more challenging, said Butler, a researcher at the University of British Columbia.

Inmates also need more comprehensive screening for those and other issues when they enter a facility, along with better health services while they are in custody, Butler said.

There’s a “huge” shortage of psychologists and psychiatrists for those with conditions like depression, anxiety, ADHD and brain injury, which are not being screened for, she said.

“We’re barely scratching the surface of what we could be doing while people are in custody,” she said, adding the focus tends to be on severe psychotic illness because that’s what puts people at higher risk of harm.

Sometimes inmates in pretrial custody are released directly from court after spending time in a pretrial facility, so planning for when they leave should start as soon as they come into custody, especially if they have short sentences, Butler said.

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