OTTAWA — Federal watchdogs and members of Parliament are pressing Canada’s top corrections officials to improve conditions for Black and Indigenous offenders who are serving time in federal prisons.
Two House of Commons committees honed in on the state of Canadian prisons this week, with MPs from all parties offering a scathing rebuke of the prison system.
During one of the hearings, New Democrat MP Blake Desjarlais accused Correctional Service Canada officials of allowing systems to fail.
“The auditor general is yelling at the top of her lungs about the conditions that are often facing Indigenous and Black people in Canada,” he said at a Thursday meeting of the public accounts committee, wiping away tears as he spoke.
“And the systems continuously stay the same.”
Auditor general Karen Hogan, who also appeared at the committee, found in a report earlier this year that the service “failed to identify and eliminate systemic barriers that persistently disadvantaged certain groups of offenders.”
“The over-representation of Indigenous and Black offenders in custody has worsened with higher security classifications, the late delivery of correctional programs and the delayed access to release on parole,” her May report said.
Hogan’s office had raised similar issues in reports delivered in 2015, 2016 and 2017.
The latest annual report from the Office of the Correctional Investigator of Canada also found — and not for the first time — that Canada was failing its Black and Indigenous prison populations.
Ivan Zinger testified at the House public safety committee on Friday that such prisoners are subject to discrimination, biases and racism.
He added that the broader inmate population is being left in a “state of destitution” with no way to get ahead. Inmates who work in prison haven’t had a pay raise since 1981, he said, when wages were set at $6.90 a day. It’s hardly enough to pay for items such as toothpaste and soap, which are not provided for free.
Zinger said that the Correctional Service Canada is “very good at producing a lot of corporate documents” — but that work “doesn’t filter down to the penitentiary floor.”
Commissioner Anne Kelly acknowledged there are systemic barriers and racism within the criminal justice system.
“While CSC cannot influence the decisions that bring offenders into our custody, it is our responsibility to improve outcomes for offenders by providing them opportunities for effective rehabilitation,” she said at the Thursday committee hearing.
Hogan’s report had found that Indigenous and Black men were placed in maximum security prisons at twice the rate of other offenders.
It also called into question the quality of the custody rating scale, a framework used to determine the level of security an inmate will be placed in. The scale had not been reviewed by experts since 2012, the report said, and an additional set of criteria used to determine where to place Black offenders had never been validated at all.
Moreover, officers didn’t always follow the provisions they were supposed to, Hogan said.
“We found that corrections staff frequently overrode the scale security rating to place Indigenous offenders at higher security levels, with little consideration of culturally appropriate and restorative options,” she told MPs at the committee.
Kelly said the rating scale is only one component in a comprehensive process to determine the security level of federally sentenced offenders.
But she said the federal agency has ramped up its efforts to ensure what it is doing is “reliable and valid.”
She said that process includes conducting “extensive” work on the way it classifies Black offenders, and partnering with the University of Regina to develop an “Indigenous and gender-informed security classification process.”
The service is trying to improve conditions in other ways, too, Kelly and other officials said — such as creating more digital programming and setting up Indigenous intervention centres intended to help offenders access and finish programming.
The correctional service also says it is in the process of hiring a deputy commissioner for Indigenous corrections and is developing strategies to help it better serve the needs of Black offenders.
At the committee hearing, Desjarlais pressed the officials on their knowledge of the work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, and expressed disappointment when they could not name calls to action that apply to their work.
He suggested that the state of prisons should trouble all Canadians.
“This is not an Indigenous and Black issue,” he said. “This is a Canadian justice issue. It’s an issue of our justice system, not the individuals (whom) they fail.”