By Alexandra Paul, Winnipeg Free Press, October 12, 2012
The rising number of aboriginal women behind bars in Canada is “nothing short of a crisis,” yet Ottawa pays little more than lip service to public calls for change, concludes a new study prepared for Public Safety Canada.
The highly critical finding surfaced Thursday in news reports about the study titled Marginalized, the Aboriginal Women’s Experience in Federal Prisons.
John Hutton, executive director of the John Howard Society in Winnipeg warned prison rates will rise, not fall, as a result of Ottawa’s tough-on-crime legislation. And that’s a shame, he said.
In Manitoba, aboriginal female prisoners find themselves behind bars in provincial institutions mostly for breaking conditions of release or breaching probation, Hutton said.
And since most of them are mothers, that has far-reaching social consequences for families, he said.
The same is true in federal institutions, he added.
“We’re too quick to lock up parents and when we do, we put something into motion that will have impacts for years to come. If we had community-based options, we’d have healthier women and fewer problems down the road,” Hutton said.
Public Safety Minister Vic Toews had yet to respond to the study Thursday.
Aboriginal women account for nearly 33 per cent of the total federal female prisoner population, even though aboriginal people only make up about four per cent of the Canadian population, the report said.
That means aboriginal women are jailed at twice the rate of the overall aboriginal prison population, which currently sits at 17 per cent of the total prison population.
“That’s absolutely appalling,” Hutton said.
When it comes to aboriginal female prisoners, the study also noted the numbers leapfrogged 90 per cent in the last decade, suggesting social factors, beyond criminal ones, are behind the soaring incarceration rates.
“Aboriginal women… represent the fastest-growing offender population,” the report declared.
Over the same period of time, Ottawa has been under pressure to respond with culturally sensitive programs to rehabilitate prisoners and reduce the conviction rates.
Yet, Correctional Services Canada (CSC) has failed on both counts, the report concluded.
Federal Correctional Services officials have talked a lot about what to do but they’ve done little, the report found.
“CSC has the challenge of addressing the multitude of needs in a culturally and gender-appropriate manner.
“However, to date, the experience of aboriginal women has been a continuation of marginalization experienced by generations of aboriginal women,” the report concluded.
Not even the famous Gladue decision has made much of a dent.
In 1999, the Supreme Court of Canada ordered judges to take into account social and cultural hurdles unique to aboriginal people when they decide on sentences.
The absence of alternatives to imprisonment don’t relieve judges from their duty, but it makes it tougher to do justice by the women, the report found.
Healing lodges, one planned in Quebec and another in Alberta, not to mention culturally appropriate programs, have been the subject of endless debate, the report found.
The latest study follows another bleak finding closer to home this summer.
Manitoba aboriginals were the hardest hit due to the overcrowding at federal prisons on the Prairies, Canada’s correctional investigator said this summer.
From 2010 to 2011, the number of federal inmates jumped by 1,000 — with 51 per cent of that increase in the Prairie region — and 43 per cent of those were aboriginal offenders, including men and women.
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The typical profiles
A new report says the number of aboriginal women in federal prisons is soaring. The report also released a typical profile of a prisoner.
The average aboriginal female prisoner is younger than non-aboriginal female prisoners and she’s serving from two to five years behind bars.
“She is serving time for a serious offence, typically a violent offence. She has an extensive criminal history a low level of employment experience and low education.”
– source: Marginalized, the Aboriginal Women’s Experience in Federal Corrections. Public Safety Canada in co-operation with the Wesley Group. http://publications.gc.ca/collections/collection_2012/sp-ps/PS4-120-2012-eng.pdf .