The provincial government is adding members to a Prince George-based team dedicated to easing offenders' transition back into society once they've served their time in jail and tripling the number of days the group can provide that support.
Mental Health and Addictions Minister Sheila Malcolmson announced the steps Monday, part of a plan to double to 10 the number of the so-called "community transition teams" in B.C.
The teams will also be able to provide support for 90 days, up from the previous 30 that the original five, which includes the one in Prince George, had been limited to when they were first launched in 2019.
"When a person is released from a correctional facility, the days and weeks following are crucial, we really want to ensure a safe and successful transition back into the community." Malcolmson said during a media event and teleconference with provincial media.
"But people discharged from prison face so many challenges, from navigating health care to getting a roof over their heads. Often, people have lost homes, jobs, family and some social skills during incarceration. Starting over can be overwhelming and triggering."
"That's why shortly after being released from a correctional centre, people with substance use challenges are 12 times more likely to die of toxic overdose. We know also that without proper mental health and substance use supports, people are much more likely to re-offend.
"That's bad for communities and bad for people that have been caught in a cycle of re-incarceration."
The team in Prince George currently has a social worker, nurse and Indigenous patient navigator in place. Recruitment is underway for a peer support worker. In addition, clients will have access to addiction physicians, psychologists, psychiatrists and more through a provincial hub that is also being established as part of the expansion.
The province has earmarked $9.8 million over three years for the expansion.
Malcomson accused the previous B.C. Liberal government of dropping the ball on the issue.
"In 2017, our government inherited a broken system. We have since been filling the gaps, making true systems-level change. Our government is urgently working to build a comprehensive and seamless system of mental health and substance use care and community transition teams are a vital part of that system."
Prince George-Mackenzie MLA Mike Morris dismissed Malcolmson's announcement as "merely window dressing," and claimed it will be ineffective due to a lack of facilities to treat mental health issues and substance misuse.
"It's no different than adding more policemen to the job and at the same time not allowing prosecutions to proceed, having no place for police to put people that they find running down the street in a rage, obviously suffering from some sort of psychosis, there's no place to house these individuals," Morris said.
"Until the NDP comes to grips with that reality and invest heavily in facilities to treat people with mental illness, to treat addictions and recovery, things aren't going to change."
On retooling the allegedly underused Prince George Youth Custody Centre for the purpose, Morris said he doesn't necessarily agree with turning prisons into mental health facilities because of the connotation associated with how people with those issues were treated years ago.
"We need a hospital kind of environment, a secure hospital environment, for those suffering from mental illness until they're capable of operating on their own," Morris said.
Morris said when the B.C. Liberals were in government, it was he and the health minister who negotiated to have all the province take over health services for all inmates in provincial and federal facilities, "because they were falling through the cracks at the time."
Since 2019, the five original teams have helped roughly 1,500 people, according to the province.