LLOYD ROBERTSON: They are men and women who maim, kill, and steal, and every year, Canadian taxpayers pay for their incarceration. But now, some doctors are suggesting jail is not the right place for many of the inmates, and that Canada's prisons are not only housing criminals, but also, the mentally ill. In tonight's "In Focus" report, CTV's Steve Chao looks at prisoners with Fetal Alcohol Syndrome.
STEVE CHAO (Reporter): In this cage, lives Jonathan Coote's only companions.
JONATHAN COOTE (Inmate): The white one is Tilly, the dark one is Princess.
CHAO: He spends most of his time with rats because most people are afraid of him.
COOTE: Ended up in prison for almost everything imaginable. From theft to assault to attempted murder.
CHAO: To many, Coote's is a career criminal, with a rapsheet to prove it. But this thirty-one year old says don't blame him. Blame his condition. COOTE: I always knew there was something wrong.
CHAO: After years on the wrong side of the law, Coote's learned he had FAS, or Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, a mental disability caused by a mother drinking during pregnancy. Government ads have long warned of the dangers.
TV AD: Drinking alcohol during pregnancy may cause, physical, mental and behaviourial abnormalities in your baby.
CHAO: And now new research shows that those abnormalities often land FAS sufferers here, in prison. The reason. Alcohol injures the brain so much that many with FAS can't tell the difference between right and wrong. One of Canada's leading researchers, Dr. Christine Loock, estimates that at least one in every four inmates in federal institutions are behind bars, not because of a conscious crime, but because of FAS.
CHRISTINE LOOCK (FAS Specialist): Our concern is that the correctional system may be a place where we're putting people who are mentally disordered.
CHAO: Corrections Canada researchers have launched their own study, but dispute the numbers. BRIAN GRANT: We're pretty sure its not as high as twenty-five percent, it would be pretty significant an impact on our offender population.
CHAO: But this Saskatchewan judge says the impact is significant.
MARY ELLEN TURPEL-LAFOND (Saskatchewan Judge): To use the heavy penal machinery of the criminal justice system against them because they're disabled is something that I don't think sits very easy with many of us.
CHAO: An earlier study commissioned by Corrections Canada in 1998 urged it tto consider FAS specific "screening and treatment programs." But to this day, none exist. Coote's takes a cocktail of pills daily to control spells of rage, but for those still behind bars, there is often no help, and no end to the cycle of crime. Steve Chao, CTV News, Halifax.
ROBERTSON: On tomorrow's "In Focus" report, we'll take a closer look at solutions to the problem of inmates with Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, and what experts say needs to be done to help them. Fetal alcohol syndrome
Canada's prisons are filled with those who have committed terrible crimes. But they are also filled with the mentally ill: those suffering from the effects of fetal alcohol syndrome. Now some doctors are suggesting jail is not the right place to help the mentally ill.
To many, Jonathan Coote, 31, is a career criminal, with a rap sheet to prove it, that includes theft to assault to attempted murder.
But Coote himself says it's not fair to blame him; blame his condition. After years on the wrong side of the law, Coote has recently learned he has FAS, or fetal alcohol syndrome, a mental disability caused by his mother drinking during her pregnancy.
Researchers believe that alcohol can injure a fetus by crossing the barrier of the placenta, damaging the brain and central nervous system of the unborn child. The syndrome stunts prenatal or postnatal growth, creates cranio-facial anomalies, hyperactivity, and often leaves those with FAS unable to differentiate right from wrong. Less obvious and seemingly milder fetal alcohol damage is sometimes called Fetal Alcohol Effects. Individuals with FAE may look normal and have seemingly normal intelligence, but their damaged brains can result in impulsivity, violence and aggression lack of conscience.
About one live births per 1,000 is affected, although the incidence appears higher in some Aboriginal communities.
Government ads have long warned that drinking alcohol during pregnancy can cause, physical, mental and behavioural abnormalities. But still, it's the leading known cause of mental retardation, though it's 100 per cent preventable.
Now new research shows that a disproportionate number of FAS and FAE sufferers will often spend most of their life in prison. One of Canada's leading FAS researchers, Dr. Christine Loock, estimates that at least one in every four inmates in federal institutions are behind bars not because of a conscious crime, but because of FAS.
"Our concern is that the correctional system may be a place where we're putting people who are mentally disordered," she says.
Corrections Canada researchers have launched their own study but dispute Loock's numbers.
"We're pretty sure its not as high as 25 percent," says Brian Grant of Corrections Canada. "It would be pretty significant an impact on our offender population."
An earlier study commissioned by Corrections Canada in 1998 urged it to consider FAS-specific "screening and treatment programs." But to this day, none exists.
And so for people like Coote there is often no help, and no end to the cycle of crime.
Corrections Canada officials admit more needs to be done for prisoners with fetal alcohol syndrome. FAS is being called one of the most pressing issues facing the Canadian correctional system.
Experts estimate one out of every four inmates has FAS -- a mental disability caused by a mother drinking during her pregnancy. They say those with FAS are the main reason Canada's jails are overflowing and they add, jail time does little to reform them.
"Putting them in the institution probably is the worst environment to put them into," Corrections Canada's Brian Grant says.
An addiction treatment centre in Canwood, Saskatchewan is trying to take some of the burden off the prison system by catching those with FAS, before they have run-ins with the law.
Those suspected of having FAS get personal counselling at the Cree Nations Treatment Haven. And the drug and alcohol abuse treatment centre -- which receives funding from the federal government -- plans to add an extra wing, specifically to treat to those with FAS. It will have 24-hour supervision, but it will cost the government $1.5 million.
One volunteer at the centre says the cost of creating such programs is small -- especially if it will keep those with FAS out of jail.
Read this article about FASD in the Court System with links to other helpful articles.
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