Covert racism behind increased numbers of Aboriginals and other visible minorities in prisons, watchdog says

Jessica Barrett, Postmedia News
Tuesday, Nov. 26, 2013

Multicultural Council of Saskatchewan, cultural diversity, intercultural, education, anti-racism, racism, multiculturalism, ethnic diversity, culture, ethnicity, awareness, acceptance

Correctional Investigator of Canada Howard Sapers speaks during a news conference to highlight areas of concern documented in the 2012-13 Annual Report of the Office of the Correctional Investigator Tuesday November 26, 2013 in Ottawa. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld

OTTAWA — The increased numbers of Aboriginals and visible minorities in federal prisons is evidence of covert racism, discrimination and cultural bias in Canada’s justice system, says Canada’s prison watchdog.

In his annual report tabled in Parliament on Tuesday, Canada’s correctional investigator, Howard Sapers, said the number of visible minority inmates is partly reflective of the overall demographic change in Canadian society, but also shows that disproportionate representation of minorities in comparison to their share of the general population is a persistent and growing problem.

According to Sapers’ report, Canada’s prison population has grown by 2,100 inmates — a 16.5% increase — in the last 10 years.

In that time, the overall Aboriginal population in the prisons grew by 46%, while the number of Aboriginal women increased by 80% and now accounts for one in three women under federal sentence.

The prison population of other visible minorities including black, Hispanic, Asian and Indian increased by almost 75%, Sapers found. One in four inmates is foreign-born.

Meanwhile the population of Caucasian inmates fell by 3%.

“Recent population growth is almost exclusively driven by an increasing number of Aboriginal and visible minority groups behind bars,” Sapers said.

“Today, 40% of the federal inmate population is composed of non-Caucasian offenders.”

The numbers are particularly striking when compared to the general population. Aboriginals account for nearly one-quarter of all prisoners but comprise four per cent of the Canadian population. African-Canadians comprise nearly 10 per cent of the prison population but less than three per cent of Canadian society. The black inmate population in federal institutions has grown by nearly 90 per cent since 2003, the report says.

“I think it raises some very significant questions about our commitment to inclusion, social justice, equity, equality,” said Sapers of the findings.

“Our justice system is held up as a model around the world and I think we need to do everything necessary to ensure it deserves the international reputation that it has.”

Our justice system is held up as a model around the world and I think we need to do everything necessary to ensure it deserves the international reputation that it has

Sapers said Canada’s prison system must address this cultural shift by introducing more culturally relevant programs, increasing staff who speak languages other than English and French, and recommended ethnicity liaison officers be placed in Canadian institutions.

Sapers said the findings of his report support longstanding claims of a systemic bias in Canada’s justice system that results in more minorities behind bars.

Once minorities get to prison, covert and subtle racism is often commonplace, he said.

A case study of the experiences of black prisoners found they were over-represented in segregation placement compared to their population in prison, incurred a disproportionate number of charges while behind bars — especially charges that were up to the discretion of staff — and were more likely to be subject to use of force.

Black inmates are also over-represented in maximum-security prisons, despite generally posing a lower risk to re-offend, Sapers said “They are also released later in their sentence and are less likely to be granted day or full parole.”

Additionally, interviews with black prisoners consistently raised experiences of prejudicial attitudes by some corrections staff, Sapers said.

Many black men felt they were stereotyped as gang members by corrections staff, no matter their behaviour, Sapers said, while one institution forced black members of a literacy group to read aloud passages from The Adventures of Hucklberry Finn, a book “riddled” with racist and demeaning terminology in its description of black characters. The experience led some black members to quit attending the group.

“I think we all know when we’re being treated differently,” Sapers said. “We all know when we’re being dismissed.”

Yet despite their experience in prison, Sapers’ investigation found visible minorities tend to fare better upon release than the general prison population. Black inmates specifically show a lower rate of recidivism once released.

“The positive difference in release outcomes raises questions beyond the scope of our investigation,” Sapers said. “In particular, questions about the appropriateness of a sentence to federal custody in the first place.”

While Canada’s prisons have made strides in addressing needs along gender lines, more must be done to combat prejudice against minorities behind bars, Sapers concluded.

Canada is an increasingly pluralistic and multicultural country. There is no room or excuse for differential treatment based on creed, colour or culture

“Canada is an increasingly pluralistic and multicultural country. There is no room or excuse for differential treatment based on creed, colour or culture.”

Public Safety Minister Steven Blaney rejected the report’s findings in Question Period Tuesday. “I do not believe that convicted criminals are entitled to their own private accommodation,” Blaney said. “The suggestions of racial bias in prison are totally inaccurate. The only group that our system of justice is targeting are criminals.”


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