Federal correctional authorities “haven’t taken action” to address systemic barriers faced by Indigenous and Black prisoners, who have been consistently disadvantaged in the prison system, the Auditor-General says.
Her report on the issue, released on Tuesday, found that those prisoners are more frequently placed in higher security institutions at admission compared with their white peers, and that they aren’t paroled as often as others when they first become eligible.
For two decades, reports and recommendations from watchdogs, government commissions and academics have called attention to the problem. The Auditor-General’s findings follow a Globe and Mail investigation from 2020 that showed Correctional Service Canada’s risk-assessment tools – standardized tests designed to measure a prisoner’s risk to public safety and odds of reoffending – were systemically biased against Black and Indigenous men and Indigenous women.
Auditor-General Karen Hogan said she is frustrated and discouraged with CSC, but that her office will keep monitoring the agency. It is also up to Parliament, she said, to hold CSC to account in order to ensure there is meaningful change. “It is long past due that Black and Indigenous offenders have outcomes that are better than they’re experiencing right now,” she said.
Correctional Investigator Ivan Zinger said that given CSC’s poor track record in addressing these systemic barriers, Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino and his department should expressly direct the prison agency and manage it to ensure these reforms. “A significant departure needs to take place for the situation to change,” he said.
A leading Indigenous-rights lawyer and a University of Toronto criminologist both agreed that CSC can no longer be trusted to address these issues, and that change must come from higher government echelons.
The Auditor-General found that in the 2020-21 fiscal year, Indigenous people made up 27 per cent of federal prisoners, despite only accounting for an estimated 4 per cent of the adult population.
The report also said Indigenous women are the fastest-growing population in the federal correctional system. Last month, Mr. Zinger said that Indigenous women now account for 50 per cent of the female population in federal penitentiaries, which he called “shocking and shameful.”
The audit found disparities are present from the moment prisoners enter federal institutions. For instance, it said that the process for assigning security classifications – including the use of the Custody Rating Scale risk-assessment tool – result in disproportionately high numbers of Indigenous and Black people being placed in maximum‑security institutions.
It also said that CSC failed to develop a plan that would allow its work force to better reflect the diversity of the prison population.
Ms. Hogan said she has had several conversations with CSC Commissioner Anne Kelly, and that the prison head acknowledges that systemic racism exists in corrections.
Ms. Kelly said Tuesday that she accepted all of the Auditor-General’s recommendations, adding that there was a plan to address issues, including work to validate the security classification processes, improve oversight and increase diversity and inclusivity of the agency’s work force.
“We must constantly work to closely examine our underlying practices, policies and programs to see how they may lead to inequities and make changes accordingly,” she said. “This is something I take very seriously and while we have taken a number of steps, more work is required.”
Among its recommendations, the Auditor-General’s office said CSC should improve the initial security classification process by having external experts review the Custody Rating Scale. This should be done in particular for women, Indigenous and Black offenders, the report said.
It also said that the CSC should identify and act to address root causes contributing to delays in the preparation of prisoners – particularly Indigenous ones – for release. CSC should also improve the “timely completion of reassessments of offenders’ security levels, to facilitate their safe transitions into the community,” the report said.
The audit is the latest in a long line of reports from the Office of the Auditor-General, Office of the Correctional Investigator, Status of Women Canada, the Canadian Human Rights Commission and Public Safety Canada. Along with academic studies, the reports have frequently highlighted the disparities in security classification, community release and programming when it comes to Indigenous, Black and other racialized prisoners.
All of those reports had various recommendations, many of which CSC said it would adopt. In 2004, for instance, an internal Public Safety Canada study found critical flaws in the Custody Rating Scale, a crucial risk-assessment tool used to determine a prisoner’s initial security classification. Nearly 20 years later, the tool remains unchanged.
In 2016, in response to an Auditor-General report that found Indigenous prisoners were assigned to higher security levels at admission than white prisoners, CSC said it would develop a new risk tool, the Criminal Risk Index, to address the disparity. But CSC still uses the Custody Rating Scale for security classification decision.
More recently, in the wake of The Globe’s 2020 reporting, the House of Commons public safety committee announced a study into systemic bias in prison risk scores, and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau vowed to do more to address systemic inequities in prison. Last year, a proposed class-action lawsuit over risk scores was filed against the federal government on behalf of tens of thousands of prisoners.
Professor Anthony Doob, a University of Toronto criminologist who has studied systemic barriers in corrections for decades, said that systemic issues, like the disparities in security classifications for Indigenous prisoners, have gone unaddressed for far too long.
“We know that that’s a problem,” he said. “We knew it was a problem in the early part of this century. And the Auditor-General is essentially telling us it’s a problem 20 years later. I guess the question is, what is anybody going to do about it?”
“More of the same – of statements from CSC saying ‘we’re working on it,’ without specific timeframes and without specific changes which could be audited – I don’t think that’s enough,” he continued.
According to Prof. Doob, it is time to consider other types of interventions. “I think that there is a question about whether Public Safety Canada should in effect have to run the Correctional Service of Canada,” he said.
Aboriginal Legal Services program director Jonathan Rudin said it is “really frustrating” to see the lack of change in the Auditor-General’s findings.
“CSC seems incapable of actually doing anything,” Mr. Rudin said. “I think it’s up to the federal government to start to hold people accountable – that means getting regular reports, making those reports public and holding people to account,” he said.
“And, if things do not change, then people need to lose their jobs, frankly.”
Mr. Mendicino, the Public Safety Minister, said Tuesday that more support must be offered to address barriers faced by Indigenous, Black and other racialized prisoners, and that he will work with Ms. Kelly, CSC head.
In a mandate letter to Ms. Kelly released publicly last week, Mr. Mendicino underscored the need for CSC to support the government efforts to address systemic racism and overrepresentation of Black, Indigenous and racialized people in the justice system, including through the creation of a deputy commissioner for Indigenous corrections.
He did not comment directly on the call that his department must be held accountable for change, given CSC’s inability to address these issues meaningfully to date.
Lynne Groulx, the CEO of the Native Women’s Association of Canada, said she read the Auditor-General’s findings with “extreme dismay though little surprise.”
“It is more than frustrating to know that similar observations were made six years ago, and that nothing has changed in the interim,” she said in a statement.
“Canada cannot claim to be on a path of reconciliation with Indigenous people when its strategy for dealing with us appears to be keeping us behind bars. The overt and covert racism within the Canadian correctional system can no longer be ignored.”
With a report from Patrick White in Toronto
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