Sitting Ducks for Assault

B.C. considers an innovative centre for prisoners affected by FAS
by Candis McLean
January 2, 2001
Report Magazine

Sixty percent of those with Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS) and Fetal Alcohol Effects (FAE) will get in trouble with the law according to a study by the University of Washington School of Medicine; other studies find that an astonishing 23% to 50% of the Canadian prison population has been affected by FAS/E-brain-damage caused by prenatal exposure to alcohol. As a result, parents and professionals are calling for a specialized facility to both deal with the unique needs of those with FAS and also reduce their high rate of recidivism. One site which advocates are promoting is the New Haven Correctional Centre in Burnaby, B.C., scheduled to close March 31st.

"We need a facility to deal with these people because they are not aware why they are there [in prison]," states Jan Lutke, spokesman for the FAS/E Support Network of B.C. "They 'don't get it;' they're brain damaged and haven't decided with understanding to go out and break the law. Someone just says, 'You're my friend and I need you to do this for me.' They will always need an 'external brain' to tell them what to do; in jail it becomes other inmates."

Ms. Lutke recommends the FAS facility be staffed by those who want to work with disabled people and that it be used for intensive skill development of inmates. Upon their release they could be connected with support services. "Such a centre would also keep [those affected by FAS] safe. In prison they are sitting ducks for physical and sexual assault; it happens non-stop."

Unless some changes are made, Ms. Lutke says, many FAS victims will continue to beget FAS victims, each one costing taxpayers an estimated $2 million over his or her lifetime (see Sept. 25 issue of this magazine).

As an example of a success story, Ms. Lutke points to 24-year-old Mark Steeves, who, as a youth, had a lengthy history with the law, including two conditional sentences, but for the past two years has held down a nearly full-time job as a cook. Although his adoptive father, Bob, has worked in correctional services for 24 years (currently at the New Haven Correctional Centre), he had no idea his son suffered from FAS until five years ago when Mark was being held in custody. There an RCMP constable who had worked with an Alberta native community spotted the behavioural symptoms and brought his suspicions to the parents.

Suddenly Mr. Steeves understood his son's constellation of symptoms including hyperactivity, impulsivity, and inability to learn from consequences, and at the same time he understood, for the first time, many of the prisoners he had worked with over the years. That's when he was finally able to help his son.

"Mark didn't change; we changed," Mr. Steeves states. "Initially when Mark had started getting into trouble we had applied tough love. When he wouldn't keep curfew we put a sleeping bag in the shed for him. That happened twice, then he disappeared. The crimes got worse and we got tougher."

Once Mark was diagnosed with FAS, the Steeves implemented structure. "Either my wife or I is always with him; we remind him to take his medication and to eat-his stomach doesn't communicate with his brain. We give him simple, clear instructions and we also eliminated change. Usually if something goes wrong it's our fault. It's taken the stress out of it and been a great relief; we realize we're not bad parents. But we've also had to grieve as we realize our hopes and aspirations for him won't materialize. He's brain damaged."

Mr. Steeves says that staff in an FAS centre would require training in similar methods: little "down time," plenty of structure and patience. "You have to tell a person the same thing ten times and not get upset. They're not noncompliant; they're just not understanding what you want. I'd also like training and research to be a big component of the centre.

Finally, when people are released, it should be into a 'cloak of structure' that lasts a lifetime."

"Provided that inmates with FAS/FAE can be identified, CSC [Correctional Service Canada] might consider designing and evaluating a special institutional program for this population that takes into consideration their specific cognitive deficits and behavioural patterns. The suggested strategy would be to modify existing, well recognized programs in the areas of social and life skills, cognitive skills, substance abuse and anger management in the direction of making them more structured, concrete and repetitive, allowing more time for review and practice, and presenting material in shorter but regular segments."-1998 report by Correctional Service Canada into the implications of FAS on the correctional service.

Please take a moment and write a letter in support of providing a correctional facility that specifically meets the needs of individuals with FAS disorders. Address your handwritten letter to:

Mr. Graeme Bowbrick
Attorney General of B.C.
Parliament Buildings
Victoria, BC V8V 1X4

A sample letter can be found at, but a personal handwritten letter will be more effective. Be brief (one page) and stick to facts.

FAS Community Resource Center