Indigenous women over-represented in Sudbury jail, group says

Much like new federal prison numbers, Indigenous women are over-represented in the Sudbury jail. About half of the women the Elizabeth Fry Society sees are Indigenous.

Cory Roslyn with Elizabeth Fry Society says they try to "do what they can with what little is available."

(Jenifer Norwell/CBC)

Indigenous women are statistically over-represented in Sudbury's jail. 

That's according to the executive director of the Elizabeth Fry Society for northeastern Ontario, a non-profit group that helps women who've been in trouble with the law.

On average, half of the women Cory Roslyn sees at the jail in Sudbury are Indigenous. In fact she says at her most recent visit she counted a total of eight women incarcerated, and five were Indigenous.

Meanwhile, Indigenous people only make up about 10 per cent of the overall population in Sudbury.

Roslyn says the local jail stats are much like new federal prison numbers from the the Correctional Investigator of Canada.

According to a report last week, nearly one-third of the country's federal inmates are now Indigenous, and that's trending upward.

Impact from intergenerational trauma

Roslyn says typically, these Indigenous women have faced intergenerational trauma. 

"I think we have to look to Canada as a whole in terms of: colonization, the residential schools, the 60s Scoop, the continued child apprehensions that are occurring," she said.

"This is all having an impact on the Indigenous people today."

Cory Roslyn is the executive director of the Elizabeth Fry Society for northeastern Ontario. (Casey Stranges/CBC)

But they also face institutionalized racism in the justice system, where Roslyn says it can be a strike against you to simply be Indigenous. 

"The system is not designed to support or address the causes of crime."

"The Indigenous communities need the appropriate support to heal from all these things that they've experienced and they have not received that so we're going to continue to see these experiences leading to the situations that lead people to become criminalized," Roslyn said.

Gladue Principles

Roslyn thinks the Gladue principles are theoretically good, but might be backfiring for Indigenous offenders.

In the 1999 Gladue ruling, the Supreme Court of Canada said sentencing judges had to look at the context of an Indigenous offender's life. This could include such factors as living in residential schools, being part of the Sixties Scoop or within the child welfare system.

"I'm not sure that it's actually being applied in a way that is helpful to Indigenous peoples in every circumstance," Roslyn said, adding that the principle is supposed to be applied starting at bail all the way through the system, through trial and sentencing.

"I think in practice, sometimes it might actually lead to the judge becoming more concerned about what they would call the 'risk level' for that person," she said.

"To me — it's indicating the needs that that person has in their life."

"Further Adds Trauma"

Other problems faced by Indigenous women incarcerated at the Sudbury jail are a lack of connections from their family and community support.

Roslyn says the women her agency is trying to support come from communities outside of Sudbury, like Manitoulin Island.

"When they are arrested and held on remand — so not granted bail — they are being held hours away from their family, their support, their children — they're separated from their children, their lawyers are on the island."

Inside the jail system in Ontario, those who are incarcerated can only connect to somebody on the outside world by calling collect.

"The fees for that are just astronomical and in today's modern world everybody has cell phones, nobody has land lines anymore and you can not make a collect call to a cell phone," Roslyn said. 

"Anyone who is a mother would know that being separated from your children would be extremely difficult, and it just further adds trauma to the life they're experiencing."

"Try to do what you can with what little is available"

Roslyn says representatives from the Elizabeth Fry Society are at Sudbury's jail almost daily to provide support and counselling to the women who are incarcerated. The society also has a native institutional liaison officer who provides Indigenous-specific culturally relevant programming.

"But that is one person for the entire jail, which I believe has about 170 people who are incarcerated there."

Roslyn says when Indigenous women go to federal prison, they are more likely to be classified as maximum security and are more likely to be denied bail or parole.

"The federal system is just not designed to support people in general, but women specifically, to be successful upon release," she said. 

She feels the federal prison system is failing in its job to rehabilitate inmates.

"On paper that's what they say they are supposed to be doing, but they are failing to do that."

The Elizabeth Fry Society advocates for alternatives to incarceration and direct investment in the community to meet the needs of the people that they're serving while they're incarcerated.

"It's extremely frustrating when you're doing the work and you meet the women one-on-one on a daily basis, you learn about the life and the experiences that they have had and then you try to do what you can with what little is available."

With files from Jessica Pope