As It Happens

Soaring rates of Indigenous people in prison 'unacceptable,' says federal watchdog

Canada's Correctional Investigator says the percentage of Indigenous people in federal custody has jumped dramatically in the past four years — a trend he describes as 'a national travesty'.

More than 30% in federal custody are Indigenous, up from 25% in 2016, according to new report

Ivan Zinger is Canada's correctional investigator. His office released Tuesday a new report, which finds that the percentage of Indigenous people in Canada's federal prisons has surpassed 30 per cent. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

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Indigenous people in Canada make up about five per cent of the country's population.

And yet, according to a new report by the Correctional Investigator of Canada, more than 30 per cent of people in federal custody are Indigenous.

That's up from 25 per cent just four years ago — and has the investigator, Ivan Zinger, calling the "indigenization" of Canada's correctional system a national travesty.

Zinger spoke with As it Happens host Carol Off. Here is some of their conversation.

You call the 'indigenization' of Canada's prison population "nothing short of a national travesty." What do you mean by that?

What we note is that, when ... a man or woman who are non-Indigenous leave the penitentiary, that person — he or she — has been replaced by an Indigenous man or woman.

We have about 14,000 men and women, who were incarcerated at the federal level. So that has remained stable for the last four years. But the profile of the inmate population has changed and we see, more and more, a larger proportion of Indigenous people being incarcerated.

And that is, in my view, unacceptable.

Another alarming number is 42 per cent of the female population in this system is Indigenous at this point. What do you make of that?

I think it speaks to inequality on how the Indigenous communities are benefitting from socio-economic rights, cultural rights, political rights, Indigenous rights. Something is not working in the community in terms of our broad public policies.

In many ways, we can take the profile of the prison population and use it as a barometer to gauge the success or failure of our broad public policies. So something is broken.

A correctional officer stands inside the Collins Bay Institution in Kingston, Ont., in 2016. (Lars Hagberg/The Canadian Press)

What do you think is broken?

We had the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. We had the Inquiry into the Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women [and Girls] that gave us lots of clues as [to] what's broken.

In my role as correctional investigator, I can tell you that when it comes to the administration of sentences, it's just not working.

Indigenous offenders remain longer in jail than non-Indigenous offenders. They're more likely to be housed in higher security, where there are fewer programs. They are more likely to be subject to use of force to [be] placed in segregation — or now into the new structured intervention units. They're more likely to have their parole suspended or revoked. And these are all things that Corrections have control over. And the correctional outcomes are terrible. And the recidivism rates — and for example, in the Prairies, for Indigenous [it's] over 70 per cent. So it's a revolving door, and Corrections isn't contributing to public safety in the way that it should. And certainly based on the large investment that Canada is making on federal corrections.

It's true they have no control over admissions, of who is sent to prison and for how long. However, it's called Correctional Services Canada (CSC) for a reason. It's supposed to offer services — rehabilitative services that would reduce the risk of reoffending. You know, issues like providing services for mental health, providing services for addiction and trying to de-affiliate people who are involved in gangs, et cetera. And those services are supposed to be tailored to the inmate population. And with respect to the Indigenous, we're not getting the the lower rates of reoffending that we deserve, based on the investment.

You see in the report that the CSC, has tweaked the system to make improvements, but you say that it needs dramatic change. Can you give us some examples of the dramatic changes you'd like to see the government implement? 

Corrections is exceptionally well-resourced. It's a ratio of 1:1. So for every prisoner, there's one employee of Corrections. We actually have 37 per cent of our penitentiaries that have more employees than inmates. 

Those are staggering numbers, and if we are going to spend that kind of money, we do need to get outstanding correctional outcomes. 

My organization, as well as the commissions on Truth and Reconciliation, the Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women inquiry [and] parliamentary committees have all suggested to reallocate a significant portion of the services … to fund Indigenous communities and groups to provide for the care, custody and supervision of Indigenous people.

Interview produced by Morgan Passi. Q&A edited for length and clarity.