Self-harm rising among aboriginal women prisoners

Female aboriginal inmates in federal prisons on Canada's Prairies are harming themselves in alarming numbers, figures obtained by CBC News show.

Female aboriginal inmates in federal prisons on Canada's Prairies are harming themselves in alarming numbers.

Last year there were 214 incidents of self-inflicted injuries and suicide attempts involving aboriginal women inmates in federal prisons on the Prairies, according to figures obtained by CBC News Network's Power and Politics through an access to information request.

That number is more than 26 times the rate in Ontario and British Columbia, which each had eight such cases involving aboriginal women in 2011.

"Women, particularly indigenous women, are the fastest-growing prison population," said Kim Pate, national director of the Elizabeth Fry Society.

"We unfortunately see many become very despondent, self-harming, suicidal. It's a grave, grave concern."

Across Canada, the number of incidents of self-injury among all federal prison inmates climbed to 958 last year — up from 271 in 2006.

In the Prairies, incidents have grown ten-fold, from 45 to 465 in that five-year period.

'I just wanted somebody to hear me'

Rachel Willan, an ex-inmate now living in Winnipeg, has scars on her arms from injuries she inflicted on herself during nearly 20 years in and out of prison.

"Many times I sliced my wrists on both arms," she told CBC News on Thursday.

Willan did time for a number of violent crimes, including assaults, home invasions and gun violence.

Today, she helps other First Nations women reintegrate into society after serving jail sentences.

"I believe that I never wanted to die, but I just wanted somebody to hear me and listen to me," she said.

"I was just crying so badly, my heart was just in the darkest place it could ever be."

New Manitoba jail offers programs

Pate said the biggest problem is a lack of in-prison programs aimed at addressing the issues that result in women getting behind bars in the first place.

In Manitoba, a provincial women's jail that opened near Winnipeg earlier this year is aiming to help inmates, says Justice Minister Andrew Swan.

"We think there's things that can be done to give women more hope to try to treat the underlying issues that got them into jail in the first place," he said.

"It's the opportunity for women who are incarcerated there to start, early on in their stay there, dealing with their mental health issues, with their addictions issues, with with life skills issues, to start to look at life on the outside."

As the new women's jail has just opened in January, It's too soon to know what effect the programs being offered there could have on aboriginal women who are incarcerated there.