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Canada’s prison population's at record high 3:10

Just 5.2 per cent of all Hamiltonians are black or aboriginal, but at the city's jail those two groups combine to represent 17 per cent of the prison population. 

CBC Hamilton obtained the most recent demographic statistics for the HWDC, or Barton Street Jail as it's more commonly known, from the Ontario Ministry of Correctional Services. There were 3,713 admissions to the HWDC in 2012-2013, the province reports, and each was asked to self-identify their race upon intake. While it's not mandatory for inmates to declare their race, only a small amount of prisoners declined or to specify or selected "other."

Here's how HWDC's population breaks down:

  • White: 69.8 %
  • Black: 8.9 %
  • Aboriginal: 8.1 %

Other visible minorities account for 4.5 per cent of HWDC's population.

Although white people constitute the majority of inmates, they are actually under-represented according to Statistics Canada's 2011 demographic information that shows whites make up 82.3 per cent of Hamilton's population.

HWDC's inmates are usually there serving short-term sentences or are there while awaiting trial, said Hamilton criminal lawyer Jaime Stephenson. She's represented clients from every race who have spent time at the Barton Street facility for minor theft to attempted murder. 

While she's heard many complaints about overcrowding at the HWDC, she hasn't heard complaints about racial issues inside the jail. She said prisoners often become close with other people from the same race, but there is no forced segregation. 

"There's no range that I've ever seen that doesn't have one white person on it, or vice versa," Stephenson said.

A spokesperson for Ontario's Ministry of Correctional Services said its objective is providing support and services to those in jail, regardless of their ethnicity. 

"The ministry has no control over who comes into custody, or the length or circumstances of their stay," said spokesperson Brent Ross.

"The decision to sentence an offender to a period of incarceration, or to remand an accused person awaiting trial to custody is solely the jurisdiction of the courts."

Ontario, Federal jails have similar demographics

The over-representation of visible minorities at the HWDC mirrors Ontario jails in general. In 2011-2012, 24.1 per cent of all provincial inmates were black or aboriginal. That percentage has climbed since 2009, when those two groups made up 22.6 per cent of the prison population.

Federal prisons are dealing with the same issue. In November, Howard Sapers, Canada's Correction Investigator, tabled a report that showed the number of visible minorities in federal jails had increased by 75 per cent in the past decade. Sapers' report noted that aboriginal women now make up one third of all female prisoners.

Still, with more than 15,000 inmates in federal prisons and thousands more provincial institutions, prison watchdogs say more needs to be done.

"You cannot reasonably claim to have a just society with incarceration rates like these," Sapers told a Toronto audience before the release of his report. 

With more than 15,000 inmates in federal prisons and thousands more in provincial institutions, Sapers said the federal governments need to develop a diversity-awareness training plans for prison staff, and to hire new staff responsible for building networks between prisons and outside cultural groups.

Ross said staff at Ontario jails is given aboriginal awareness training as part of their basic training, and that a number of prisons make special accommodations for aboriginal inmates. There was no specific programming for black inmates.

Prisons in a difficult position: justice critic

Provincial NDP justice critic Jagmeet Singh, a former criminal lawyer, said the over-representation problem manifests itself in prisons, but the problem lies with policing and government policies. 

"[Prisons] are in a very difficult situation to cope with it," Singh said.

"They're on the back end."

What's needed, Singh said, is a more balanced approach toward treating racialized groups, specifically ethnic youth who frequently come into contact with police. The more interactions someone has with the police, Singh said, the more like it is they'll be incarcerated. 

The other pattern he notes is a "criminalization of the poor." Quite simply, Singh said, if you're poor it's harder to get bail and to build a case to defend yourself, meaning it's more likely you'll wind up spending time in jail even for minor offences.

In many of these cases, Singh said the justice system is "like using a sledgehammer when what you need is a scalpel."

Stephenson said Canada's bail system, which puts more emphasis on having a family member act as a supervisor rather than the American model of putting up money, also causes unique problems for minorities.

"A lot of these individuals that are in custody awaiting trial are not necessarily there because they're a danger to the public. They're there because they don't have family or friends or anybody that can propose themselves for a surety," she said.

"They don't really have any options."