Indigenous offenders account for more than a quarter of all Canadians behind bars, and a recent audit shows their needs are often overlooked by Correctional Service Canada (CSC).
A report released this week by Canada’s auditor general said Indigenous offenders in federal custody are less likely to be granted parole, less likely to complete programming, and more likely to be classified as high-security inmates than non-Indigenous offenders.
John Howard Society executive director John Hutton, who works with offenders attempting to reintegrate into society, said the audit should come as a “wake-up call” for CSC.
“Things are getting worse, not better,” Hutton said.
According to the auditor’s report, “significantly fewer” indigenous offenders were released on parole than non-Indigenous offenders. Parole was granted to just 31 per cent of indigenous offenders in federal institutions during the 2015-16 fiscal year, compared to 48 per cent of non-indigenous offenders.
“When somebody’s released on parole they’re generally sent to a halfway house,” Hutton said. “They’re far more likely to have a successful reintegration than if they just go to their statutory release date (after serving two-thirds of their sentence).”
The audit found culturally-specific correctional programs, such as the Aboriginal Pathways healing units found at the Saskatchewan Penitentiary, were available to indigenous offenders. These elder-guided programs are meant to meet the specific cultural needs of indigenous inmates, but long waiting lists for these programs meant just 20 per cent of indigenous offenders completing the programs before their statutory releases.
Hutton said the culturally-driven programs in place for indigenous offenders are important and result in better reintegration for indigenous inmates, but called for more of them in order to improve completion rates.
Indigenous offenders were typically classified at higher security levels than other inmates. Sixteen per cent were classified as maximum-security, while just 11 per cent of non-indigenous offenders received the same classification.
Hutton said a high security classification makes reintegration very difficult, because high-security inmates have very little personal control over their lives.
“In the course of the day you don’t get to decide anything in medium security,” Hutton said. “We have to give people an opportunity to practice decision-making and choice-making before they’re released.”
Spokesman Jeff Campbell said CSC agrees with the Auditor’s findings.
“CSC will be taking steps to ensure there is a clear path for Indigenous offenders to follow their correctional plans, with reassessment of their security levels at key milestones to ensure they are transitioned to the lowest appropriate security level as quickly as possible,” Campbell said in a written statement.
Michel Picard, parliamentary secretary to the minister of public safety and emergency preparedness, spoke to paNOW from Ottawa. Picard said the Liberal government welcomed the Auditor General’s recommendations.
“I think these are constructive criticisms that we need to consider,” Picard said, calling the current situation of Indigenous offenders in Canada “unacceptable.”
“We have to do more.”
Picard said the ministry has been in talks with indigenous organizations and key stakeholders to determine the next steps, but declined to give any specific timeline for when the changes will be enacted.
“I don’t think a date is in order,” Picard said. “I think these situations, since they concern generations and population, those things have to be done right.”
“We’ll take all the time necessary with the stakeholders to find the right solutions,” he said.