Ottawa must tackle the tragic overrepresentation of Indigenous people in prisons

Posted on January 29, 2020 in Equality Delivery System

Source: — Authors: – Opinion/Editorials
Jan. 27, 2020.  

For women the situation is even worse: 42 per cent of federal female inmates are Indigenous.

That’s an appalling imbalance.

This kind of thing doesn’t just happen. It’s not the result of a fair society and equal treatment under the law. This is a systemic problem and one of Canada’s most pressing social justice issues.

We wish we could say these shocking new figures, released last week by the federal watchdog for prisons, will galvanize everyone to action. But, tragically, history suggests that won’t be the case.

Four years ago, Ivan Zinger, the correctional investigator, reported on this disturbing trend. Indigenous people were 25 per cent of the prison population then.

And, going back two decades, one of his predecessors said the overrepresentation of Indigenous people in prisons required “immediate attention.”

At the time, Indigenous people represented 2 to 3 per cent of the population and 16 per cent of male inmates. It was 20 per cent for women.

Those figures have now doubled. And what’s been done?

Not much. Certainly nothing that has worked.

“The Indigenization of Canada’s prison population is nothing short of a national travesty,” says Zinger.

It certainly is.

That national travesty, though, begins long before the prison door slams shut.

Every conceivable measure we have to judge how a population is doing shows Canada is failing Indigenous peoples: child welfare, poverty, addictions and mental health, housing and clean water, education and employment, and incarceration.

There seems to be no measure by which Indigenous peoples fare well compared to other Canadians. And until governments start taking more aggressive steps to address those gaps, Indigenous overrepresentation in prisons will persist.

But that doesn’t let Canada’s justice and prison systems off the hook for the role they play in contributing to such terrible outcomes for so many people.

Indigenous inmates are disproportionately placed in maximum security and have been held longer in solitary confinement. They serve a higher proportion of their sentence behind bars before being granted parole, and are poorly prepared for their release back into the community.

Not surprisingly, then, they are also more likely to reoffend and return to prison, where the tragic cycle begins all over again.

Zinger’s list of recommendations for addressing this must have taken little time to compile. All he had to do was cut and paste from previous reports issued by his office, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls, and various parliamentary committees.

His recommendations for “bold and urgent action” include: appointing a deputy commissioner for Indigenous corrections to be accountable for progress; increasing access to culturally relevant correctional programming; and improving reintegration in Indigenous communities.

Given how many times these ideas have been mentioned before — albeit without the necessary action by politicians and the correctional service to turn them into reality — it’s hard to see them as bold anymore.

But urgent, certainly. And only getting more so.

Two decades ago, when the federal prisons ombudsman recommended the equivalent of a deputy commissioner for Indigenous corrections, the tragic prison figures were half what they are now. Isn’t it about time for some of that “immediate attention?”

If the federal government and correctional services can’t manage to move on this one modest proposal, what hope is there for all the other changes?

As Murray Sinclair, who led the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, said: “We owe it to each other to build a Canada based on our shared future.”

Zinger has outlined where we’ll be in three years without real change: one in three inmates in federal prison will be Indigenous.

That doesn’t sound like much of a shared future.

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