Prison System Neglects Aboriginals
14 Jul, 2013
Dramatic Rise In Number of Jailed Indigenous People
Canada’s prison system continues to fail indigenous people, according to a scathing new report from the country’s prison watchdog.
The number of aboriginal people behind bars has increased 43% in the past 5 years, correctional investigator Howard Sapers said.
His special report, tabled in Parliament in March, says federal programs aimed at supporting aboriginal inmates have been inadequate, and the prison system perpetuates conditions of disadvantages for indigenous people.
“If I were releasing a report card on aboriginal corrections today, it would be filled with failing grades, Sapers told a news conference, adding that the disproportionate number of aboriginal people in prisons ‘continues to cloud Canada’s domestic human rights record.”
First Nations, Inuit and Métis people now make up 23% of Canada’s total inmate population, despite being just 4% of the overall population, Sapers said.
Indigenous women are even more overrepresented in prison: in 2010-11, they accounted for almost 1/3 of all federally incarcerated women, an increase of more than 85% over the last decade.
The report also found aboriginal offenders are more likely to spend longer portions of their sentences behind bars, and are more prone to self-mutilation while incarcerated.
“Despite years of efforts, things are not getting better,” Sapers said. “Given these alarming and growing numbers, programs and options for the care, custody and treatment of aboriginal inmates must become a significant priority for the CSC.
Sapers’ report makes 10 recommendations, including that CSC should create the position of deputy commissioner for aboriginal corrections, and should expand staff training to include aboriginal history and culture.
Asked about the report in question period in the House of Commons, Stephen Harper said the government takes its responsibility to protect Canadian society seriously. “It’s important to note that prisoners are individuals who were found guilty of crimes by independent courts, and it’s essential for society to act,” Harper said. “The reality is that unfortunately aboriginals are more often victims of violent crime than other Canadians.”
Justice Minister Rob Nicholson, said the government has taken “a balanced approach,” investing in crime prevention programs over the last 7 years. The Corrections and Conditional Release Act, the law that governs correctional practice in Canada, contains specific provisions for dealing with aboriginal inmates.
But Sapers found “serious gaps between the law and practice.” More than 20 years after the act, there has been no progress in closing the large gaps in correctional outcomes between aboriginal and non-aboriginal inmates, he said.
For example, Section 81 of the law gives the government the capacity to establish healing lodges through agreements with aboriginal communities. But there are only 4 such agreements in Canada, leading to a capacity of 68 beds in 4 lodges.
Nearly 600 inmates expressed an interest in a Section 81 transfer in 2011, but the lodges remain underused and under-funded the report said. The community-run healing lodges are funded at a fraction of the rate of similar CSC-run lodges, which are mostly operated as minimum-security prisons, the report said.
The report recommends negotiating permanent “at-parity” funding levels for existing and future healing lodges, and an increase in the number of bed spaces.
The healing lodges feature culturally relevant programming and take a holistic approach to healing and restoring balance, said Christy Big Canoe, legal director at Aboriginal Legal Services Toronto.
“This is law that’s been around for 20 years,” she said. “The law actually sets out what they should be doing. It’s supposed to be resourced by CSC and it’s not.”
The Assembly of First Nations said the best strategy to reduce incarceration rates for aboriginals is to increase investments in education. “An investment in nurturing the self-esteem, ambition and dreams of our children and youth will pay the greatest dividends and cost significantly less than having them end up in the justice system,” AFN Alberta Regional Chief, Cameron Alexis said in the statement.
Source: Postmedia News
Image: Mathieu Boulet