Indigenous offenders over-represented in federal prisons, report says

(Herald file photo)

Indigenous offenders continue to make up a disproportionate number of federally-sentenced inmates, the latest report from the correctional investigator says.

Ivan Zinger’s 2018-19 annual report, released Tuesday, notes that despite making up only five per cent of the Canadian population, Indigenous offenders represented 23.1 per cent of the offender population across Canada in 2016-17.

The percentage of Indigenous women incarcerated is even worse. Zinger found that 41.4 per cent of women in federal prisons are Indigenous.

Of Indigenous women in corrections, about 80 per cent are First Nations, the report said. Broken down by age, 80 per cent are between the ages of 18 and 40, with 92 per cent of Indigenous offenders rated as having “moderate or high” substance abuse needs.

Further, Indigenous women offenders report rates of abuse higher than the non-Indigenous women population. Zinger wrote that 72 per cent of Indigenous women reported experiencing abuse in their lives, compared to 48 per cent of incarcerated non-Indigenous women and 54 per cent of incarcerated Indigenous men.

Indigenous offenders also typically serve a higher proportion of their sentences before being released on parole, Zinger said.

“The over-representation of Indigenous peoples in Canadian prisons continues to be one of the most pressing issues for federal corrections today,” he wrote.

Indigenous offenders are also overrepresented when it comes to suicide statistics. Zinger found that Indigenous offenders comprised 39 per cent of all suicide attempts over the last ten years.

Zinger is far from the first person to examine this issue. In October 2018 the federal government submitted its response to parliamentary studies looking at the overrepresentation of Indigenous people in Canada’s prisons.

However, Zinger wrote, the government relied mostly on a “thematic” response as opposed to addressing recommendations separately.

“CSC did identify a few potentially promising initiatives in its response,” Zinger wrote that included Aboriginal Intervention Centres and ‘forthcoming’ contracts with Indigenous communities to provide reintegration services.

However, he said, “the majority of the responses were vague, non-committal, and, for the most part, expressed an intention to maintain the status quo.”

He wrote that while funding came during Budget 2017-18, which CSC “repeatedly invoked” as the solution to many issues raised in the report, it’s unclear how that money will be, or has been, allocated.

“Simply stating that new contracts, programs, and initiatives will be created based on new funds does not inspire confidence in the development of transformative solutions. However, I will reserve judgement until I see concrete plans to substantiate these promises,” Zinger wrote.

He said that given the lack of details and commitments, he’s questioning how the government intends to address specific recommendations made by committees.

“If the government intends to make good on the FEWO Committee’s recommendation of ‘eliminating the over-representation of Aboriginal people [and youth] in custody by 2025,’ there will need to be coordinated and intentional strategies put in place,” Zinger wrote.

“The focus needs to shift towards creating and utilizing alternatives to incarceration, increasing access to effective and culturally relevant services for incarcerated Indigenous inmates, and a considerable reallocation of resources to effective community reintegration efforts.”

In a public statement attributed to Public Safety Minister Bill Blair, the federal government thanked Zinger’s office for its report.

“The Correctional Service of Canada (CSC) has identified a path forward to address the many issues raised, and I will work closely with CSC leadership to ensure that real progress is made,” the statement said.

“Addressing the challenges facing the federal correctional system remains a priority for the Government of Canada. This includes ensuring that employees have a respectful and healthy workplace and addressing gaps in services for various offender populations, including Indigenous peoples, women, ageing offenders, and those living with mental illness.”

“We also continue work with our partners, as part of a whole of government approach, to address the overrepresentation of Indigenous peoples in the criminal justice system, both as victims and offenders.”

Recommendations Zinger made relating to the treatment of Indigenous offenders include:

– Publicly responding to how CSC intends to address the gaps identified in the Ewert v. Canada decision and ensure that more culturally-responsive indicators (i.e., Indigenous social history factors) of risk/need are incorporated into assessments of risk and need; and,

– Acquire external, independent expertise to conduct empirical research to assess the validity and reliability of all existing risk assessment tools used by CSC to inform decision-making with Indigenous offenders.

In consultation with the National Aboriginal Advisory Committee and the National Elders Working Group, implement an action plan with deliverables for clarifying the role of Elders and reducing Elder vulnerability within CSC and report publicly on these plans by the end of 2019-2020.

In 2019-2020, CSC complete, in consultation with the Canadian Human Rights Commission, a comprehensive review of its staff complement, from the point of view of better reflecting and representing the diversity of the offender population. As part of this review, CSC should examine complaints against staff on prohibited grounds of discrimination. An Action Plan should be developed to address gaps.

Report on how they specifically plan on addressing the unique employability needs of vulnerable populations (e.g., women, Indigenous, mental health, aging and younger individuals).