Canada’s jails are setting up Indigenous prisoners to fail by deeming them ‘high risk’
Canada’s federal prisons are disproportionately classifying Indigenous prisoners as “high risk” despite a lack of evidence, according to a new audit that highlights the broad problems in the country’s correctional system.
The report by Auditor General Michael Ferguson paints a foreboding picture of how Correctional Service Canada treats Indigenous prisoners, who remain disproportionately incarcerated and held in stricter conditions, while the agency reduces its training on Indigenous issues.
The report comes a year after the Truth and Reconciliation Commission called on the federal government to end the overrepresentation of Indigenous people in custody over the next decade.
There is a wide discrepancy between which facilities Indigenous inmates are sent to, compared to non-Indigenous offenders.
The audit found that 16 percent of Indigenous offenders were classified as high risk, compared to just 11 percent of non-Indigenous inmates. Most Indigenous prisoners, 61 percent, are deemed medium-risk, a label reserved for just 47 percent of the rest of the population. Those Indigenous inmates in the higher-security facilities have less access to traditional and spiritual services.
Just 23 percent of Indigenous offenders are labelled low-risk, while 42 percent of non-Indigenous inmates receive the same classification.
Auditors traced the problem to a blunt risk-rating scale, due in part because provincial and territorial courts are taking months to send relevant documents.
Intake officers are supposed to consult police reports, judge’s comments and Gladue reports — which assesses how an Aboriginal offender was shaped by residential schools and intergenerational trauma. But a study of 45 case files showed that just four included Gladue reports, and nine included judge’s comments.
“The timely release of offenders on parole has a direct bearing on public safety. It could also hinder their successful reintegration into the community.”
Most prisoners are required to undergo rehabilitative programming prior to their release. While delays persist in the prison system in general, Indigenous-specific programming has an average backlog of five months.
These delays, caused mostly by chronic under-staffing, often thwart prisoners’ chances at getting parole. In the audit, which covered the most recent fiscal year, 83 percent of Indigenous inmates had their parole hearings delayed, almost always because they were still undergoing the programming they would need to be released.
As a result, rather than receiving a parole evaluation within the first third of their sentence, Indigenous prisoners are often serving twice as long before getting a chance at day passes or early parole.
Under Canadian law, about half of prisoners are eligible for early release before they finish two-thirds of their sentence. But that process is afforded much less frequency to Indigenous inmates, with nearly seven-in-ten waiting until a statutory release, which takes place after setwo-thirds of their sentence.
The audit also found that most Indigenous prisoners who were granted early release were discharged directly from medium- or maximum-security facilities. The auditors warn that abrupt releases lead to higher rates of reoffending. “The timely release of offenders on parole has a direct bearing on public safety,” they note. “It could also hinder their successful reintegration into the community.”
A possible solution raised by the audit could be to assess inmates down to lower-security prisons prior to their release.
Correctional Service Canada has sharply cut Indigenous social history from its training. In 2013, parole officers received two full days of training on Aboriginal social history — now they get just six hours.
Meanwhile, Indigenous prisoners struggle to get culturally relevant programming, such as meetings with elders, healing lodges, and counselling.
— OAG_BVG (@OAG_BVG) November 29, 2016
Those lodges, which are spaces where Indigenous people can live and have access to traditional and spiritual programs and can undergo skills training, are only available for men in minimum security facilities, and for women in minimum- and medium-security prisons. That means the vast majority of Indigenous inmates have no access to these facilities, even though Correctional Services Canada have found that inmates who have lived in these lodges have a lower recidivism rate than the average offender.
The government will respond to the audit Tuesday afternoon. The audit’s findings echo an annual report published earlier this year by prison ombudsman Howard Sapers, who slams the government for making “little discernible or meaningful progress in narrowing the gap in key areas and outcomes that matter to Aboriginal offenders and Canadians.”
Tuesday’s audit covered April 2013 to August 2016, and only looked at prisons operated by Correctional Service Canada. Prisoners often serve sentences of two years or less at provincial jails.
Cover: Photo by Ken Gigliotti CP/Winnipeg Free Press