Dim Prospects for Aboriginals in Corrections

by Reuel S. Amdur

Aboriginals are being short-changed by Canada’s correctional system. What’s more, it is likely that the situation will get worse. These are the conclusions of a report by Michelle Mann for the Office of the Correctional Investigator headed by Howard Sapers, the correctional ombudsman. While the recently released report is at times rather dense and not particularly reader-friendly, the basic message is clear: more needs to be done to make the system more effective for Aboriginals.

Aboriginals, 4% of the population, make up; 17.3% of the inmate population. The rate of incarceration for Aboriginals is increasing, up 131% in the last ten years for Aboriginal women, and the situation is likely to deteriorate further because the Aboriginal population is younger than the general Canadian demographic, meaning that a larger part of the Aboriginal population will be in the young age range where problems with the law are most common. As well, the Aboriginal birth rate is higher than the general Canadian birth rate.

The executive summary tells us that Aboriginal offenses “are often related to substance abuse, intergenerational abuse and residential schools, low levels of education, employment and income, substandard housing and health care, among other factors.” It costs over $100,000 a year to keep someone in prison. The report does not address the obvious question of why a substantial amount of money should not be spent to remedy these problems. Prevention should prove cheaper, but it is contrary to the mood and approach of the government, which found the Kelowna Accord too expensive.

Compared to other inmates, Aboriginals are more likely classified for maximum level incarceration, less likely to be classified as minimum, likely to serve more of their sentence, less likely to be paroled. When on conditional release, they are more apt to fail and require reincarceration.

While Mann finds that culture-specific interventions for Aboriginals appear to reduce recidivism, “culturally appropriate programs and services are not yet universally available.” Programs in the community are also lacking. There have been programs established in prisons, but they are too few to meet the need. Also, programs linking these prisoners to Aboriginal communities on their release are in short supply. How well do the programs in existence work? “In general, CSC [Correctional Service Canada] policies are weak on program performance indicators, reporting, and accountability.” There are serious gaps in research on effectiveness of CSC efforts.

Correctional Service Canada is attempting to hire more Aboriginal staff but is short on Elders (chaplains) and front-line staff. Psychologists are also lacking, but there are few Aboriginal psychologists in the country, a fact Mann does not mention. To get more will require an investment in recruitment at the undergraduate level and financial support through graduate school, a long-term challenge. Yet, such a measure needs to be compared to the $100,000 per year to pay the cost of incarceration of a person.

Mann raises the problem of fetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD) among Aboriginal inmates. She notes that the program for diagnosis of the condition is yet to be fully developed. When it becomes operationalized, the problem remains as to what is to be done to deal with FASD. Treatment is extremely expensive and long-term, and prognosis even with treatment is at best guarded. In fact, treatment is best implemented beginning in childhood, again raising question about priorities for spending.

The issue of FASD is part of the larger problem of mental health care in the correctional system. A significant part of the correctional population has mental health problems requiring treatment, but treatment is in short supply.

Mann points out that demographic trends are not the only factor likely to lead to increased levels of Aboriginal incarceration. “There are further increases in incarceration of Aboriginal peoples expected related to recent amendments to the Criminal Code regarding weapons, gang affiliated offences, dangerous offender designations, impaired driving and mandatory minimum sentencing.” Here she puts her finger on a basic issue for Aboriginal corrections.

The Harper government’s approach to criminal justice—in large measure supported by the other parties with the possible exception of the Bloc—is to get “tough on crime.” Mandatory minimums are a key example. The number of inmates is bound to increase significantly as a result, making overcrowding in prisons more serious, with accompanying disruptions and probable violence. We can foresee a surge in the creation of new correctional institutions, building which will be at the expense of programs. In fact, the Conservatives are not particularly committed to programs. They refer to efforts to make the prisons less inhumane as “Club Fed.” They want to keep prisoners locked up longer, with less access to probation and parole and to programs in the community such as halfway houses and house arrest. They call it “truth in sentencing.”

Essentially, filling the gaps in services for Aboriginals identified in the report would be contrary to the heart of the government’s philosophical approach to criminal justice and corrections. Experience with such an approach in the United States proves it to be extremely expensive, to lead to massive increase in prison population, and to have poor outcomes in terms of curtailing crime in general and recidivism in particular. It seems that this government is not prepared to learn from the mistakes of others. It wants to duplicate them.

A final word about the style of the report. It is at times unclear and does not favor the general reader. One might refer the prison ombudsman to the reports of André Marin, current Ontario Ombudsman. Before Ontario, his reports as the military ombudsman shook up the Forces. He is readable and incisive. His reports are powerful. Mr. Sapers, go thou and do likewise.