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'The mad and the bad'

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A month's worth of pills was pumped from her stomach. She left the hospital and slipped into old habits: booze, drugs and trouble. By the mid-1990s, her drug of choice was crystal meth, an addictive stimulant that produces 12-hour highs — and, unable to hold a job, she started dealing.

She ended up controlling the communities around Edmonton — Edson, Drayton Valley — selling five ounces to half a pound of crystal meth at a time to other dealers. She was pulling in thousands of dollars a day and splurged on vehicles, paintings and furnishings.

"I kept up with the Joneses except I was a drug dealer and the Joneses were working stiffs," Ms. Grunsky said.

Her neighbours were oblivious, even though community theft and break-and-enters were on the rise and shady characters milled around at all hours. But two city police officers — whom she now considers friends — were on to her.

"They did everything in their power to get me off the street because everywhere I lived was a nightmare for the community," she said. "I don't blame them at all. My houses were nightmares. They were drug magnets."

'GROWING CRISIS'

Police have become "psychiatrists in blue" — Canada's front-line workers dealing with the mentally ill. The Vancouver Police reported that 31 per cent of the 1,154 calls they received during a 16-day period in December, 2007, involved a mentally disturbed person. Some police forces are creating specialized mental-health units to deal with such cases.

During his 20 years treating offenders, Kenneth Hashman, a forensic psychiatrist in Calgary, has worked with everyone from a homeless schizophrenic who gets hungry and commits a dine-and-dash to a mother who killed her infant during a bout of postpartum depression. Mental illness can afflict the most marginalized and the most privileged, he says, but whether they break the law may depend on their genes, psychological makeup and social support.

"There are some pretty seriously ill people in prisons," Dr. Hashman said.

Since 2005, under persistent prodding from Mr. Sapers, the Ombudsman for the federal corrections system, Ottawa has announced millions in new funding for mental-health services during and after incarceration. Last year, Mr. Sapers called it "only a small fraction of what is required to deal with this growing crisis," and the federal government responded with an additional $16.6-million annually.

Still, federal and provincial facilities are feeling the pressure. This week, Mr. Sapers cited a lack of "adequate mental health services" as a contributing factor in the suicide of 19-year-old Ashley Smith in a federal prison in Ontario last fall. Quebec psychiatrists have threatened to refuse work in prisons, complaining the conditions for the mentally ill are inhumane. Unionized correctional workers in New Brunswick recently went on strike, citing chronic overcrowding and the influx of mentally ill prisoners, who are either ostracized or segregated for up to 23 hours a day.

A patchwork of initiatives is taking root across the country. These include mental-health courts, which started in Ontario a decade ago and are designed to divert the mentally ill out of the justice system and into treatment. Alberta is considering such courts, and is also working to better target funding to treatment of mentally ill offenders — who, they've come to realize, eventually return to the community.

As Judith Barlow, executive manager with Alberta's correctional health services, put it: "What happens behind prison walls doesn't stay behind prison walls."

A LIFE SENTENCE

During her downward spiral into mental illness and addiction, Ms. Grunsky lost her home, husband and grown children, who feared for the safety of their own kids.

On Sept. 2, 2003, she walked into an Edmonton courtroom and pleaded guilty to one count of trafficking methamphetamine, one count of possession for the purpose of trafficking and two breaches of recognizance. She was sentenced to 27 months in federal prison.

"There is no question that she has paid a price for involvement in the drug culture, and I think she recognizes that," said Mr. Justice R. Paul Belzil of the Alberta Court of Queen's Bench.

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