By PATRICK HUNTER
Almost too quietly, Howard Sapers, the Correctional Investigator, also known as the ombudsman for federally sentenced offenders, had his annual report on the state of Canada’s federal prison institutions tabled in the House of Commons just over a week ago. Drowned out by the ongoing mess around Senate misdeeds, it appears that very few media outlets paid any attention to it.
I am probably being too kind to the media by providing an excuse. The report deals with racialized persons, and mostly Black people. Interest in such an issue would be “comme ci, comme ça”. Why should the public care about what happens to Black people or Indigenous peoples in correctional institutions?
Sapers’ report, this year, focused on Diversity in Corrections with a case study on “The Black Inmate Experience in Federal Penitentiaries”. To say that his findings are a cause for concern is not only to state the obvious, but also to understate that concern. Clearly, the treatment of African-Canadians in these institutions is way below what they should be.
Anyway, some of the highlights of Sapers’ report are as follows: “Over the past 10 years, the Aboriginal incarcerated population increased by 46.4 per cent, while visible minority groups (e.g. Black, Asian, Hispanic) increased by 75 per cent. During this same time period, the population of Caucasian inmates actually declined by three per cent.”
If that makes no impression on you, then try this: “9.5 per cent of federal inmates today are Black (an increase of 80 per cent since 2003/04), yet Black Canadians account for less than three per cent of the total Canadian population. Aboriginal people represent a staggering 23 per cent of federal inmates yet comprise 4.3 per cent of the total Canadian population.”
Before going further on Sapers’ report, we have heard commentators in the United States talk about the over-representation of African-Americans in the U.S. prison system. Here are some figures from the United States for reference. According to figures obtained from the Center for American Progress in March of last year, “people of colour make up about 30 per cent of the United States’ population [but] account for 60 per cent of those imprisoned.” I do not want to bombard you with too many statistics, but according to the same report, “one in every 15 African-American men and one in every 36 Hispanic men are incarcerated in comparison to one in every 106 White men.”
Sapers’ report virtually tiptoes around naming outright racism as a cause for how African-Canadians are treated, unlike the Commission on Systemic Racism in the Ontario Justice System of the mid-90s which he references. That was one of the closest looks at how Blacks were treated in the justice system, including prisons, but was specific to Ontario.
And, to be fair to Sapers, he notes that in most cases the inmates who were interviewed as part of the case study did not identify racist language as part of their interaction with correctional officers. Instead, much of the problem was systemic in that, for example, they were “consistently over-represented in involuntary/disciplinary segregation placements”. The report goes on: “In 2012/2013 Black inmates were involved in 13 per cent of use of force incidents while representing 9.3 per cent of the inmate population. It is reasonable to conclude that discrimination and stereotyping reported by Black inmates may be a contributing factor in their over-representation in incidents of use of force.”
Sapers did not let the greater Black community off the hook, embarrassingly. Many of the African-Canadian inmates “reported never having seen, spoken to, or met with anyone from a Black community group though most expressed a strong desire to have these linkages”. He does note that some inmates in the Ontario region heard about or talked to the organization, Black Inmates and Friends (BIFA).”
African-Canadian inmates, as the report notes, often lose contact with friends and family while incarcerated. Their problems, on release, are often compounded not only because of their colour, but also because of the fact that they have a criminal record. In a lot of cases, this does not just affect their ability to get a job; it could also have long term impact on their familial relationships which is often the last hope.
One other note of considerable importance, the number of incarcerated Black women appears to be increasing. Most of them have been incarcerated for drug-related problems – mainly trafficking.
It is more than likely, based on the federal government’s race-related track record, that Sapers’ concerns will not be acted on. The thinking, it appears to me, is not unlike that voiced by an Edmonton Journal commentator, Lorne Gunter: “Let’s deal first with Sapers’ claim (repeated often by other hug-a-thug theorists) that we don’t need to lock up more crooks because the national crime rate is falling. Has it never occurred to these alleged experts that the crime rate is falling precisely because so many more crooks have been locked up?”