Why are Indigenous women disproportionately represented in federal prisons?

Even though Indigenous women make up only five per cent of the population, they account for almost 40 per cent of the prison population - and the discrepancy in the numbers is getting worse.
Amanda Lepine, 37, has spent most of her life in prisons. She was first incarcerated at age 12. (Chantelle Bellrichard/CBC)
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The call to action from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission's final report almost three years ago states the overrepresentation of Indigenous people in custody must be reduced — but the numbers are getting worse.

While Indigenous women make up less than five per cent of the population, they account for 38 per cent of women in prison, according to a report published last year by Canada's Correctional Investigator.

They're women like inmate Amanda Lepine, a Métis mother of three who, at 37 years old, has spent more than 20 years in prison.

Lepine's circumstances are not uncommon says Promise Holmes Skinner, who has seen first-hand how often Indigenous women are ending up in prison, while working at Aboriginal Legal Services of Toronto.

"From the get-go we see far too many young Indigenous women and girls going to institutions, and then that becomes their life, and they become victims of abuse far too often," Holmes Skinner tells The Current's Anna Maria Tremonti.

"They're on their own … doing the sorts of things that they need to do to be able to survive, so petty crimes, stealing things so that they can eat, so they can buy the necessities of life."

Part of the problem is that community diversion programs are not being used and supported, argues Holmes Skinner. She adds these programs have been proven to lower reoffending by addressing the underlying issues young Indigenous women face.

"They don't throw a Band-Aid on it. They're talking about really what's going on, not the armed robbery, not the alcohol — what's below the alcohol," she explains. 

'We call upon federal, provincial and territorial governments to commit to eliminating the overrepresentation of Aboriginal people in custody over the next decade,' said former Truth and Reconciliation Commission chairman Murray Sinclair. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

The need to address this issue isn't lost on Kelley Blanchette, deputy commissioner for women at Correctional Service Canada. But she says they don't have a role in the process until after an offender is sentenced.

"We can't control who we get. We can only control what we do after we receive them," she tells Tremonti.

"But there is some work that we can do that ultimately may have an impact on the length of their stay with us or their success in the community when they are released."

When asked why she thinks 50 per cent of inmates put into solitary confinement in Canadian prisons are Indigenous women, Blanchette says Indigenous women come to the correctional facility with a different profile than non-Indigenous women.

"They're more likely to come in with a history of having been incarcerated, more likely to have misconducts while incarcerated, more likely to come in with violent offences so that does impact their security classification," she says.

Listen to the full conversation at the top of this page, which includes the CBC's Chantelle Bellrichard report on the overrepresentation of Indigenous women in custody.

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This segment was produced by the CBC's Chantelle Bellrichard and Winnipeg Network Producer Suzanne Dufresne.