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Voices ᐋ ᐄᔮᔨᐧᒫᓂᐧᐃᒡ

“Indigenization” of our prisons

BY Will Nicholls Feb 13, 2020

Indigenization. Normally we think of the term in a positive sense. But that is apparently not what we are looking at in Canada’s penitentiaries according to this year’s report from the Correctional Investigator of Canada, Ivan Zinger.

While Indigenous people form about 5% of Canada’s population, almost one of every three federal inmates in the country is Indigenous. That proportion is climbing. Two decades ago, less than 18% of federal inmates – meaning those given prison sentences of two years or more – were Indigenous. The proportion is even worse in women’s prisons – at 42%.

These statistics do not reflect provincial prisons or youth incarceration. In 2017, for example, almost half of youths in custody were Indigenous.

Indigenization is defined as making something more Indigenous. It can be the process of adding ways of knowing, being, doing and relating that are incorporated into an organization or entity. Others say it’s about transforming a service to suit a specific culture or people.

The Correctional Service of Canada (CSC) gives the word new meaning – none of them related to the definitions above. Instead, it indicates that the Canadian government’s much-vaunted reconciliation efforts have not yet reached the justice system.

When we consider that custody rates for Indigenous people are sharply increasing while the overall prison population is actually declining, something is wrong.

Zinger found these trends to reflect “disturbing and entrenched imbalances.” CSC needs to take responsibility for its part in further criminalizing Indigenous inmates (for instance, by keeping them in longer and more frequent periods of solitary confinement and by multiplying charges from incidents while incarcerated that add time to sentences).

While there are many other factors that contribute to this injustice, Zinger insisted on holding our correctional service to account.

“In failing to close the outcomes gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous offenders, the federal correctional system makes its own unique and measurable contribution to the problem of over-representation,” Zinger emphasized. “CSC needs to accept its share of responsibility… The Service needs to make dramatic changes to reduce readmissions and returns to custody, better prepare Indigenous offenders to meet earliest parole eligibility dates and more safely return Indigenous offenders to their home communities.”

Among others, Zinger recommends the government:

  • Transfer resources and responsibility to Indigenous groups and communities for the care, custody and supervision of Indigenous offenders;
  • Improve engagement with Indigenous communities and enhance their capacity to provide reintegration services; and,
  • Develop assessment and classification tools responsive to the needs and realities of Indigenous people caught up in the criminal justice system.

We’ve all seen similar recommendations and calls to action in the past, and yet little has made an impact on incarceration rates.

The Eeyou Istchee Justice Department is working on some of these concepts. They are providing reintegration services and a host of other programs that the CSC could learn from. Unfortunately, many First Nations are unable to provide similar services because of a lack of human and material resources.

The “Indigenization of Canada’s prison population is nothing short of a national travesty,” said Zinger – one that needs “bold and urgent action.”

Zinger is right, but the past shows that we really need to see Indigenization of the federal and provincial justice systems in Canada before things will improve.

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Will Nicholls is a Cree from Mistissini. He started his career off in radio and is still one of the youngest radio DJ’s in Canadian history, having a regular show on CFS Moosonee at the age of 12. Will was one of the founding members of the Nation, and has been its only Editor-in-Chief.