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Increasing Over-representation of Indigenous Women in Canadian Prisons

Honourable senators, I rise today to speak to Inquiry No. 19. As the inquiry says, incarcerated Indigenous women are among the most marginalized citizens of Canada who all too often go without a voice and without adequate support systems. It is this group of women who are the most represented and the least taken care of when it comes to their presence in federal institutions across the country.

The numbers are discouraging. In 2016, the Correctional Investigator of Canada indicated that, for the first time, more than a quarter of prisoners in Canadian prisons are Indigenous people. The numbers are bleaker when we consider Indigenous women, as recent statistics show that some 39 per cent of women in prisons are of Indigenous descent.

This is a trend that has continued to increase consistently over the past three decades with no signs of slowing down.

Honourable senators, I would like to call your attention to a 1988 report of the Standing Committee on Justice and Solicitor General entitled Taking Responsibility. This report was groundbreaking at the time because it took a much-needed review of sentencing, conditional releases and other related aspects of corrections within the Canadian context. Although this report may now be dated in certain aspects, there are many themes and realities that are still reflected clearly in today’s society.

This report states, in part:

The serious disruption of the Native culture and economy that has taken place in this century has had a devastating effect on the personal and family life of Native inmates. They are often unemployed, and have low levels of education and vocational skills. Many of them come from broken families and have serious substance abuse problems. Some Native inmates, especially Native women, are incarcerated at great distances from their home cities or towns, or their reserves.

Honourable senators, for greater context, when this report was written in 1988, it was noted that Indigenous peoples represented a disproportionate percentage of offenders in federal institutions when compared with their proportion of the general population. At that time, Indigenous peoples made up roughly 2 per cent of Canada’s overall population but 9.6 per cent of Canada’s prisoner population. In 2016, Indigenous peoples made up 4.9 per cent of the general population and a staggering 25.4 per cent of Canada’s prisoner population.

Remember, colleagues, that this number is considerably higher when the number of Indigenous women who are incarcerated is taken into consideration, as this marginalized demographic makes up over 39 per cent of incarcerated women.

It is apparent that Indigenous peoples in Canada, especially Indigenous women, are stuck in a debilitating cycle where generation after generation face an uphill battle to lead successful, healthy, crime-free lives. If today’s system is still reflective of the problems that existed 30 years ago, not enough is being done to close this gap and right the wrongs that exist in order to ensure the next generation does not have to face the same bleak prospects.

Colleagues, this Justice Committee’s 1988 report also contains wise words that should be heeded today, noting that programs delivered to Indigenous prisoners must be done in a way that is respectful and considerate of the cultural differences that exist between Indigenous and non-Indigenous prisoners. Specifically, the report found that:

A related development has been the increasingly widespread interest in Native spirituality among Native inmates. This involves the spiritual guidance in Native traditions offered by Elders and the observance of such practices as the sweat lodge. The effect of Native spirituality is to put the Native inmate in touch with the Native community and its age-old traditions.

Honourable senators, shortly after this report, the 1992 Corrections and Conditional Release Act, or CCRA, came into law and brought forth options for Indigenous peoples remanded in federal custody to be transferred to Indigenous care and custody. Section 81 of the Corrections and Conditional Release Act deals with the notion of transfers. Through this section, the Minister of Public Safety is enabled to enter into an agreement with an Indigenous community to provide, with the consent of the prisoner, that he or she be transferred into the care and custody of the community, to be paid for by the minister.

Although this is a discretionary power of the minister, it was a welcome development. Having Indigenous prisoners be released into the care of the community, surrounded by the traditional healing that they could provide, was a sorely missed aspect of treatment in federal institutions. These prisoners are often imprisoned a long way from their home communities and reserves, and far from their cultural heritage, traditions and support groups that make rehabilitation more viable.

Colleagues, there is an equally important section of the 1992 CCRA that also deals with the transfer process. I am speaking of section 84, which holds that if an Indigenous prisoner asks to be released into an Indigenous community, Correctional Service Canada must give the community notice of the prisoner’s release date and an opportunity to propose a plan for the prisoner’s integration into the community. This allows the community to adequately prepare in advance of the prisoner being remanded into their care.

Sections 81 and 84 were undoubtedly aimed at giving Indigenous peoples greater control over matters that affect them. They allow communities to welcome their own back to their ancestral home where they can undergo the healing and treatments that are sacred and unique to Indigenous people. Yet, while these two sections are intended to help alleviate the over-representation of Indigenous peoples in federal prisons, the criteria that a prisoner must meet in order to be considered for transfer are highly restrictive and counterproductive to what these sections attempt to accomplish. Namely, one of the criteria indicates that the prisoner must be classified as minimum security or, in rare cases, as medium security.

The issue with this, colleagues, is found in a report of the Office of the Correctional Investigator entitled Spirit Matters: Aboriginal People and the Corrections and Conditional Release Act. This report found that in 2010-11, only 11 per cent of Indigenous prisoners were held in minimum security institutions. I do not believe that the original intent of these transfer sections, aimed at reducing the number of Indigenous peoples in prison, included barring 89 per cent of applicable prisoners from consideration.

Colleagues, although the transfer process requires improvement through a greater level of accessibility to help ensure its effectiveness in lowering the number of Indigenous peoples, especially Indigenous women in prison, of greater concern is the level of health care that is afforded to these institutionalized women.

A 2003 report of the Canadian Human Rights Commission, titled Protecting Their Rights speaks of the limited and varying access to health services that incarcerated women face. It states:

The health needs of federally sentenced women and their access to necessary and appropriate health services must be looked at in the context of how women’s health issues differ from men’s: “... (w)omen experience more sickness, more disability and more psychological distress (than men).” Health inequality can be particularly serious for Aboriginal women who have higher rates of suicide and substance abuse. These patterns are mirrored in the lives of women incarcerated in federal correctional facilities.

Because they are in custody, federally sentenced women are not generally eligible for health services provided under provincial health insurance plans. Instead, under sections 86 and 87 of the Corrections and Conditional Release Act, the Correctional Service of Canada has a duty to provide essential health care services to inmates in accordance with professionally accepted standards. What health care services are “essential” has been interpreted very broadly in the human rights context.

Honourable senators, I am of the firm belief that the basic right of adequate health services should be afforded to all women equally, incarcerated or not, and especially for those who are most vulnerable and at risk: Indigenous women.

It is important to recognize the barriers to accessing health care that incarcerated women face in Canada. A 2016 report in the International Journal of Prisoner Health entitled Access to healthcare services during incarceration among female inmates finds that female prisoners in Canada have cited a number of barriers when accessing health care services during incarceration. These barriers include long waiting lists, difficulty accessing medications, underskilled or non-empathetic health care staff, lack of continuity of care, lack of health literacy and poor transitional planning.

There exists an overall sense that incarceration negatively impacts health. This is despite the fact that in many cases the instability within many of these women’s lives before entering prison was underscored by a general lack of well-being and poor self-care.

Honourable senators, within this report’s study, incarcerated women in Canada listed several reasons why they felt their access to health care was hindered. The first concern was the general lack of knowledge around existing health care services and how to go about obtaining this vital information.

Women are reported as feeling “embarrassed” or “afraid” to ask for this information. Colleagues, this comes back to the notion of health literacy defined in this report as “the inability to access, understand, evaluate and communicate information as a way to promote, maintain and improve health in a variety of settings across one’s life-course.” This is intricately linked to one’s own health as it affects their ability to make informed choices, reduce risks to health and navigate the health care system.

The other concerns reported surround the Health Service Request form. Through this form, prisoners outline any health concerns they are experiencing. This is reviewed by correctional nursing staff who then provide a written response to the prisoner, which may require further assessment as determined by a physician. Many prisoners flag the wait times between these steps as a source of delay in receiving their required and, at times, urgent treatment.

Further, many prisoners reported feeling sloughed off and that, in some cases, their concerns or issues were not taken seriously by the medical staff.

An additional barrier to health-care services for many prisoners is the lack of consistency with treatment during periods of transition. Many report transition periods as pocked with fragmentation as entry and release into the community — as well as transfers from one correctional facility to another — often result in treatments, testing and prescriptions being discontinued or not followed up on.

When considering the many barriers faced by women in prison — especially Indigenous women — in having their health care needs met, this 2016 report gives three recommendations which are believed would alleviate many of the problems surrounding access to adequate health care for these prisoners during incarceration. These recommendations are: the provision of comprehensive incarceration entry and exit health assessments, strategies to improve health literacy, and the establishment of health support networks while incarcerated.

Honourable senators, it is important to hear the words of the individuals directly impacted and affected by these barriers and unacceptable conditions. A 1990 report from CSC entitled Creating Choices: The Report of the Task Force on Federally Sentenced Women has a chapter called, “The Voices of Aboriginal People,” which quotes incarcerated Indigenous women on their experience in prison. It states:

Aboriginal women have “a strong and uniform plea that their cultural and spiritual backgrounds be recognized and accepted, and that all aspects of their treatment within the prison and on release in the community reflect this recognition.”

Our distinct experience as Aboriginal women must be recognized. We cannot be either women only or Aboriginal only. Our race and our gender are integrally linked. Our identities as women flow from the teachings of our various Aboriginal Nations. That we are distinct must not be trivialized.

. . . because the prison focuses only on the incident or incidents in the Aboriginal women’s history which brought them into conflict with the law, Aboriginal prisoners cannot heal because the source of their pain lies within entire lives of violence, victimization, and abuse.

Honourable senators, federally sentenced Indigenous women are women who are most at risk and have the fewest advantages in Canadian society. We need to ensure these women are no longer part of the cycle that sees them as underrepresented in our society and overrepresented in our prisons. It is time we facilitate these transfers out of prisons and into Indigenous communities for appropriate healing and rehabilitation.

Finally, it is time we heed Call to Action 35 of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and work with Indigenous communities to provide culturally relevant services to prisoners on issues such as substance abuse, family and domestic violence and overcoming the experience of having been sexually abused. It is incumbent on us, colleagues, to do our part in giving a voice and a hand to those members of our society who are most in need of it. Thank you.

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