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Justice (25-42)

Federal prison watchdog sounds alarm over treatment of Indigenous inmates

November 1, 2022
Correctional Investigator of Canada Dr. Ivan Zinger listens as Deputy Director Blaise Ndala speaks during a news conference in Ottawa, on Nov. 1.

Globe and Mail: Efforts to improve conditions for Indigenous inmates have stagnated over the past decade, the federal prisons watchdog says, perpetuating the disadvantages of a group that is vastly overrepresented in the prisoner population.

Correctional Investigator Ivan Zinger found that facilities established specifically to meet the needs of Indigenous prisoners, called healing lodges, are sitting half empty. Construction of new healing lodges has stalled, with just one created in the past decade, according to his annual report, released Tuesday.

Also, the Correctional Service of Canada (CSC) has yet to fulfill a decade-old demand from his office to create an executive-level position for a commissioner of Indigenous corrections – a recommendation that has earned support from many task forces over the years, and from federal Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino.

“Corrections has an admittedly complex set of issues to contend with, but we have reached a point where complexity is no longer a sufficient excuse for stagnation,” Dr. Zinger says in the report.

The report highlights several other problem areas in federal prisons, including the overrepresentation of Black people in the prisoner population, discrimination against Black prisoners and the emergence of conditions similar to solitary confinement, three years after Ottawa formally abolished those practices.

Almost half of prisoners held in isolation are Indigenous, panel says

The healing lodge findings buttress those of a Globe investigation published last month. It detailed the way CSC, despite soaring rates of Indigenous incarceration, had seemingly abandoned a push to build more of the lodges, called “Section 81 facilities” after the 1992 statute that authorized their creation.

Healing lodges are intended to rehabilitate minimum-security Indigenous prisoners through an array of programming grounded in cultural practices, such as powwows, round dances, sweat lodges and therapy sessions led by elders. Research has found that Indigenous people released from healing lodges have lower reoffence rates than those released from comparable minimum-security prisons.

The Correctional Investigator, who operates as an ombudsman for federal prisons, gathered detailed data on vacancy rates at existing healing lodges and found they are 49 per cent empty.

For the six healing lodges that are Indigenous owned and operated, those low numbers present a financial problem. The facilities operate on Section 81 agreements that entitle them to a level of per-diem funding from CSC based on how many beds are filled. Low occupancy means funding shortfalls.

CSC owns and manages another four healing lodges.

Marty Maltby, CSC’s acting director-general of Indigenous initiatives, told The Globe and Mail last month that healing lodge populations plummeted during much of the pandemic because of COVID-19 restrictions in place throughout the prison system. Mr. Maltby said he anticipated that populations would climb as restrictions lifted. He also said CSC has worked with healing lodges over the past two years to address any COVID-19-related financial woes.

Dr. Zinger’s investigation into healing lodges follows up on a 2012 report from his office that admonished CSC for failing to honour commitments on Indigenous issues.

Among other things, the 2012 report found that CSC had abandoned a 2001 push to establish 22 Section 81 healing lodges, and that it had diverted funds toward its own prisons that were intended for Indigenous-run healing lodges.

The report also found that CSC dedicated paltry resources toward Indigenous communities that wanted to take responsibility for supervising local offenders released from prison, under what are called Section 84 agreements.

All of those issues remain unresolved, according to Dr. Zinger.

“At the most basic level, the correctional system should not serve to further perpetuate disadvantage, which is precisely what we have seen reflected in the outcomes and prison health indicators for incarcerated Indigenous Peoples, particularly when compared to their non-Indigenous counterparts,” he says in Tuesday’s report.

When Section 81 healing lodges first began operating, in the late 1990s, CSC was negotiating with at least 22 Indigenous groups to expand the healing lodge network across the country. Today, Ontario, the Atlantic provinces and the territories still don’t have any healing lodge beds.

The report calls on CSC to reallocate a significant – but unspecified – portion of its budget toward Indigenous groups and communities for the care and custody of Indigenous offenders.

In a statement, CSC Commissioner Anne Kelly said her agency is working to combat systemic racism in the criminal justice system. “To support this priority, CSC has developed an Anti-Racism Framework and Actions, focusing on employees, offenders, and stakeholders,” she said. “We also continue to implement training for staff on topics such as anti-racism, unconscious bias, Indigenous culture, and cultural competency.”

Dr. Zinger’s annual report highlights several other areas of concern.

An extensive investigation by his office revealed that Black prisoners make up 9 per cent of the federal prison population, despite making up just 3.5 per cent of the Canadian population. They tend to be overrepresented in maximum-security institutions and use-of-force incidents with staff. They are also generally overrepresented in isolation units, where prisoners are held when they can’t be safely managed in the general prison population.

Black prisoners told investigators they are subjected to racist language by prison staff, and said they had been told they couldn’t wear do-rags because they are considered gang symbols.

In a response, CSC said do-rags and hair extensions are now being considered for inclusion on the list of approved personal property for prisoners.

“Black persons frequently reported being labelled or treated like gang members by CSC staff even if they did not have any official or active security threat group affiliation,” Blaise Ndala, one of the investigators, said at a news conference on Tuesday.

In 2019, Ottawa implemented legislation to abolish administrative segregation, a prisoner isolation practice similar to solitary confinement that appeals courts had ruled unlawful. But Dr. Zinger’s office found that restrictive “segregation-like” conditions persist in several areas of federal prisons. These units “are subject to little or no external oversight or independent monitoring,” he said.

Mr. Mendicino, the Public Safety Minister, responded to Dr. Zinger’s annual report in a statement. “Combatting systemic racism across government, including in our justice system, is one of our top priorities,” he said.