OTTAWA – Aboriginals now account for 18.5% of federal inmates, but only 2.7% of the Canadian population, the country’s prison watchdog said yesterday in a report that blasted the system for discriminating against natives.
“The general picture is one of institutionalized discrimination,” said Howard Sapers, the Correctional Investigator of Canada.
He said Aboriginal prisoners are put in maximum-security penitentiaries and segregation in disproportionate numbers, kept in jail longer, and are not provided with proper programs to help them survive when they leave.
Ten years after the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples denounced Canada’s justice system for failing natives, Mr. Sapers said in his annual report that the number in prisons has exploded and could reach 25% of inmates in less than a decade.
“The experience of Canadian aboriginal peoples and the justice system has been described as Canada’s national disgrace,” he told a news conference.
“Alarmingly, this huge over-representation has grown in recent years.”
The number of Aboriginals in prison climbed 22% between 1996 and 2004, while the general population dropped 12%, the report said.
The over-representation is particularly acute on the Prairies, where Aboriginals account for 60% of federal prisoners.
Mr. Sapers stressed that the Correctional Service of Canada is not responsible for the ballooning numbers of imprisoned natives – only their treatment once they’re in the system.
He called on the federal government to adopt more culturally sensitive programs and practices, including increasing the number serving time in minimum security prisons instead of maximum- or medium-security facilities.
Public Safety Minister Stockwell Day denied that the prison system discriminates against aboriginals.
There should also be a significant hike in the number of Aboriginals who appear before the National Parole Board at their earliest eligibility date and prisons should approve substantially more unescorted temporary absences to improve prospects of reintegration in the community upon release, said the report.
Public Safety Minister Stockwell Day, the minister responsible for the prison system, denied that the prison system discriminates against aboriginals.
“I visited personally a number of federal institutions and have spent time with Aboriginals themselves individually and in groups in the institutions,” he said in the House of Commons.
“I am confident in the professionalism of the people who work for Corrections Canada.”
Aboriginal groups said that the Conservative government’s plan for more mandatory minimum prison sentences and other get-tough measures will exacerbate the problem of too many native prisoners.
Phil Fontaine, grand chief of the Assembly of First Nations, renewed calls for Ottawa to appoint a deputy commissioner of Aboriginal offenders.
Beverley Jacobs, the president of the Native Women’s Association of Canada, blamed Aboriginal over-representation on poverty, poor education, unemployment, dismal living commissions, alcoholism and violence in Aboriginal communities.
Nationally, the incarceration numbers are much higher for female prisoners – one in three serving time in federal penitentiaries is Aboriginal.
The Sapers report also highlighted several other problems in the prison system, including a lack of improvement in decreasing the number of mentally ill inmates and poor health care for prisoners.