Number of aboriginal women in prison at crisis levels, federal report shows

Steve Mertl
National Affairs Contributor
Daily Brew

The number of aboriginal women behind bars has mushroomed to crisis proportions in Canada in the last decade, according to a report prepared for the federal Public Safety Department.

And while it didn't create the problem, the Conservative government's "tough on crime agenda" will make it worse, the report says, according to The Canadian Press.

The report, entitled Marginalized, was prepared by a consulting firm and released recently by Public Safety, CP reported.

It calls for "aggressive action" but was pessimistic the problem would be addressed.

"It is highly unlikely that the issues of such a marginalized population will receive the attention and resources necessary to even begin to address the multitude of issues," the report says.

[ Related: Aboriginal background must factor in sentencing: Supreme Court ]

"Absent political will, fundamental change will not occur within the system.  Furthermore, given the political climate of late, there is no indication that effective change for aboriginal women in corrections will occur anytime soon.

"The federal government's "tough on crime agenda" does nothing to ameliorate the disproportionate rates at which aboriginal peoples are incarcerated — quite the opposite, in terms of aboriginal peoples' over-representation within the justice system, the federal government's current plan will only serve to further increase the numbers and worsen the already staggering injustice experienced by aboriginal peoples as a whole."

The report found that while aboriginals make up just four per cent of the Canadian population, First Nations, Inuit and Metis women account for a third of the inmates in the federal prison system. The overall aboriginal offender population in the federal system is 20 per cent, the report says.

In the last 10 years, the numbers have grown by almost 90 per cent, making them the fastest-growing offender group.

"The current state of over-representation of aboriginal women in federal corrections is nothing short of a crisis," the report says.

The actual number of federally incarcerated aboriginal women is not large — 164 as of April 2010 — but there is no indication the figure will decline, the report says. They tend to be younger than their non-aboriginal counterparts, it adds.

[ More: RCMP to probe First Nations health centre over mismanagement ]

The report attributes the problem to the history of colonization, the damaging effects of the residential school system and challenges aboriginal women face today because of "oppressive government polices and laws," exploitation, violence and racism, CP reported.

Aboriginal women are also over-classified when it comes to designating whether they should be placed in minimum-, medium- or maximum-security facilities, the report says.

The Correctional Service has made some strides to help imprisoned aboriginal women, such as special programs that utilize native elders, but much more work needs to be done, it says.

Responding to the report, Corrections told CP it had several initiatives in place, including reviewing its mental health strategy from an aboriginal perspective, revising its policy on the needs of suicidal and self-harming offenders, improved staff training, universal access to elders, and a new generation of correctional programs for women offenders.