Government failing aboriginal prisoners: ombudsman

The federal government needs to take "urgent action" on Aboriginal corrections or the situation may devolve into crisis, said Canada's prison ombudsman in a new report released Friday.

The number of natives in jail continues to grow

As Canada's young aboriginal population booms, the federal government needs to take "urgent action" to improve support programs for native prisoners or face a potential crisis, said a new report released by Canada's prison ombudsman Friday.

The report, entitled Good Intentions, Disappointing Results, said the aboriginal population is much younger than the national population and is experiencing a higher growth rate. If these trends continue, the problem of aboriginal over-representation in corrections will worsen rather than improve.

In 2007-08, nearly one in five federally incarcerated offenders was a person of aboriginal ancestry. For women, this over-representation was higher — about 33 per cent of women in federal penitentiaries were aboriginal.

"Today my message is clear — given the urgency of the situation, I call upon the service to do the right thing and immediately appoint a deputy commissioner for aboriginal corrections," correctional investigator Howard Sapers said in a statement.

Failed commitments

The report, issued by the Office of the Correctional Investigator in Ottawa, suggested that the Correctional Service of Canada (CSC) has failed to live up to many of its commitments on improving the system.

While the report praised the CSC for implementing several "positive initiatives" such as introducing healing lodges and making elders available to inmates for guidance, it criticized the government for not making these resources more widely available to aboriginals around the country. 

"Previous attempts to reduce the gap in outcomes between aboriginal and non-aboriginal offenders have largely failed," wrote Michelle Mann, the independent researcher who prepared the report.

The document called upon the CSC to "provide tailored programs and interventions to address the different needs and profiles of aboriginal offenders and to work closely with aboriginal communities for effective reintegration."

Aboriginals in jail tend to be younger, have previous criminal records, and suffer from health problems such as fetal alcohol syndrome.

The report stated that the CSC should address several shortfalls in aboriginal corrections, including:

  • Inadequate funding to roll out its various initiatives for aboriginals. Only two per cent of the annual budget goes to programming, although new measures continue to be created.
  • A shortage of community resources for aboriginal offenders when they are released from institutions.
  • A lack of native elders to provide guidance in institutions.
  • A continued absence of statistical evidence of either progress or improvement in the CSC's mandate of managing aboriginal offenders.

With files from The Canadian Press