A new report by Canada’s correctional investigator has found the number of aboriginal inmates has skyrocketed over the last decade.

The report said aboriginal inmates are vastly overrepresented in Canada’s federal prison system and current policies are failing them.

Aboriginal people make up 23 per cent of the federal prison population but make up only about four per cent of the general population.

'If I were releasing a report card on aboriginal corrections today, it would be filled with failing grades'— Howard Sapers, Canada's correctional investigator

The report also revealed the number of aboriginal inmates in Canadian prisons has gone up by more than 50 per cent in the last 10 years.

Canada’s correctional investigator, Howard Sapers, said the numbers reflect discrimination.

"If I were releasing a report card on aboriginal corrections today, it would be filled with failing grades," said Sapers.

And Manitoba’s numbers are even worse.

At Stony Mountain Institution, located about 10 kilometres from Winnipeg, more than 60 per cent of inmates are aboriginal.

Sapers believes the numbers reflect decades of discriminatory policies.

He said he blames "the lingering effects of failed policies of assimilation, of residential schools, of denied opportunities, of economic disadvantage."

Two decades ago, laws were changed to allow for aboriginal offenders to serve sentences outside of institutions, including in community healing lodges.

'A lot of the people I work with always think about committing suicide'— James Lathlin, former inmate working in prison system

But the report found that isn’t happening often enough.

Prison programming needed: former inmate

James Lathlin was once incarcerated in a Manitoba jail, and now works in the prison system. He said the right programming can help turn lives around.

"A lot of the people I work with always think about committing suicide," said Lathlin.

"They get back into addictions and just fall back into the system. It’s a revolving door."

Lathlin served two years in a Canadian prison for drug charges when he was 18. He said the prison’s spiritual and educational programs helped him move on from a difficult situation.

"[I] found myself through spirituality, higher powers and things like that. [It] just made me a better person," said Lathlin.

He believes those programs are less accessible today.

He said the addition of new programs could help give inmates hope for a better life and stop a cycle of inmates returning to the justice system.

Youth intervention

Robert-Falcon Ouellette is the program director for Aboriginal Focus Programs at the University of Manitoba.

He said prison programs are a band-aid solution, and more social programs are needed to keep aboriginal people out of prison in the first place.

'It’s much cheaper to provide the service now, than at $100,000 per prisoner per year in the federal system.'— Robert-Falcon Ouellette, University of Manitoba

"You have all these young people who are in need of these services, who have these issues, these challenges in their life, but they’re not getting the services now," said Oulette.

"It’s much cheaper to provide the service now, than at $100,000 per prisoner per year in the federal system."

Federal government officials haven’t yet said how they will address the issues raised by the correctional investigator’s report.

The Office of the Correctional Investigator is an impartial body that conducts investigations into how correctional services treats offenders in its care.

Thursday’s report was only the second ever written by the correctional investigator in more than 40 years.