Tackle social issues that lead to incarceration, says Sask. advocate in wake of prison watchdog report

A new report says Canada has made scant progress in addressing the overrepresentation of Black and Indigenous people in prisons, with some facing even worse conditions than they did a decade ago. (Adobe.com - image credit)
A new report says Canada has made scant progress in addressing the overrepresentation of Black and Indigenous people in prisons, with some facing even worse conditions than they did a decade ago. (Adobe.com - image credit)

A Saskatchewan advocate says more support is needed to prevent people from ending up in prison, in the wake of a new report that says Canada has made very little progress in addressing the overrepresentation of Black and Indigenous people behind bars.

"I think we really do need to see some fundamental shifts in our justice system," said Shawn Fraser, CEO of the John Howard Society of Saskatchewan.

The report from Dr. Ivan Zinger, the country's top prison watchdog, says some inmates are facing even worse conditions than they did a decade ago and that systemic concerns and barriers, including rampant racial discrimination, stereotyping and bias, are just "as pervasive and persistent as before."

"For an organization that spends so much money to have poor correctional outcomes, especially for Indigenous prisoners as well as for Black prisoners, is a real shame and something that Canadians should be concerned with," Zinger said.

Indigenous people are more likely to be subjected to force by correctional officers, put into structured intervention, placed in maximum security and labelled as gang members, according to Zinger.

Justin Tang/The Canadian Press
Justin Tang/The Canadian Press

Additionally, Indigenous prisoners are more likely to self-injure and attempt suicide. Five out of six prisoners who died by suicide last year were Indigenous, Zinger said.

While Fraser finds the report disheartening, it doesn't surprise him.

"I don't think the system has really changed much in the last many years," he said in an interview.

4/5 of Sask. inmates are Indigenous

The report found that Black prisoners represent 9.2 per cent of the total incarcerated population despite representing only about 3.5 per cent of the overall Canadian population.

Meanwhile, the overrepresentation of Indigenous people in prison continues to worsen. They only represent about five per cent of the Canadian population, but now make up 32 per cent of the prison population.

In Saskatchewan, Indigenous overrepresentation is much more dramatic.

As of Thursday, 80 per cent of people in province-run jails were Indigenous, according to the Ministry of Corrections, Policing and Public Safety. The ministry said that was a one-day snapshot and that the percentage of inmates who are  Indigenous ranges from 75 to 80 per cent.

"Certainly this legacy of colonialism is right on the surface of Saskatchewan," Fraser said.

He said it's important to keep in mind that crime is a symptom of a broader illness: poverty.

"If we want to look at what's driving these numbers, it's really about poverty. And we need to understand that keeping people in prison is very expensive," he said.

The Correctional Service of Canada (CSC) employs about 1.2 staff members for each incarcerated person and spends almost $190,000 a year per prisoner, according to Zinger, putting it among the best-financed agencies in the world.

Fraser said more money needs to be spent on things like housing, education and family supports to try to prevent people from going to prison.

"I think people really do need to understand that by the time somebody goes to prison, it's already too late," he said.

Support after prison release

Mark Arcand, tribal chief of the Saskatoon Tribal Council (STC), said it's also important to support people after they're released to prevent them from reoffending.

"We're trying to rehabilitate people. So if people don't have a home to go back to, how do we get them home? If they need education, how do we get them into school?" Arcand said.

"We've got to have more cultural support, more one-on-ones with mental health psychiatrists, whatever they choose to do to make themselves better."

The STC is set to receive millions in funding from the Saskatchewan government to lead a pilot project that will help female offenders transition back to the community.

The organization said it will provide up to a year and a half of intensive support to female offenders who frequently return to custody for minor offences, offering them services including mental health, addictions and cultural supports.