Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Tuesday more needs to be done to fight systemic racism within federal prisons, the same day the Office of the Correctional Investigator released a report showing sexual coercion and violence within the prisons.
A Globe and Mail investigation on Saturday revealed systemic racism in prisons is being perpetuated by risk assessments that are biased against Black and Indigenous inmates. Critics are urging Ottawa to act.
Mr. Trudeau was asked what specific steps his government will take to hold the Correctional Service of Canada accountable.
“I think addressing systemic racism requires us to hold all institutions accountable and recognize that every institution has changes to make and improvements in order to serve all Canadians fairly and properly, particularly racialized and Indigenous Canadians,” Mr. Trudeau said in Ottawa.
But federal Correctional Investigator Dr. Ivan Zinger said corrections officials have known for a long time this was a priority for the government. He called on Public Safety Minister Bill Blair to lay out concrete steps for the CSC.
“I think it’s time to see if we’ll really commit to doing things differently,” Dr. Zinger said. “The Minister of Public Safety should direct [the CSC] with deliverables and time frames that are clear, and move toward the vision of the government. That has yet to happen,” he said, speaking after his annual report was tabled in Parliament on Tuesday.
Mr. Blair is expected to be questioned about discrimination and racism in federal prisons when he appears before the House public safety committee next week. Dr. Zinger said he is scheduled to appear at the committee on Nov. 2 to discuss systemic racism in prison as well as his annual report.
In an e-mailed statement, Esther Mailhot, a spokesperson for the CSC, repeated that the agency was “working hard to address systemic barriers for offenders, once they are in our custody.”
On Monday, MPs from all parties on the House of Commons public safety committee agreed to study systemic discrimination in federal prisons, including inmate risk assessments, and report its findings to the House.
Indigenous and Black people are overrepresented in the federal prison system. Earlier this year, the Office of the Correctional Investigator said Indigenous and Black people accounted for 30 per cent and 10 per cent of inmates respectively – but they only account for roughly 5 per cent and 4 per cent of the Canadian population, according to the 2016 census.
The Globe’s investigation looked at the CSC’s use of custodial risk assessments, standardized tests used to determine an inmate’s risk to public safety and odds of successfully reintegrating.
Two scores are particularly important: an inmate’s security level, which is used when deciding which prison they’ll go to and what kinds of services they can access, and the reintegration score, which factors into parole decisions.
The analysis found that after accounting for variables such as age, offence severity, criminal history and whether or not the inmate was serving a life sentence, Black men were nearly 24 per cent more likely than white men to end up with the worst security level at admission.
Indigenous men, meanwhile, were almost 30 per cent more likely than white men to receive the poorest reintegration score during their time in custody. The examination also found both Indigenous and Black men were actually less likely than white men to reoffend after accounting for their reintegration scores.
Mary-Liz Power, a spokesperson for Mr. Blair, said the significant overrepresentation of Indigenous and racialized people in the correctional and justice systems is “completely unacceptable.” “We’re working hard to rectify these intolerable realities,” she said.
The Correctional Investigator’s annual report summarized three major investigations, including one that looked at sexual coercion and violence in prison. Dr. Zinger said he was disturbed by what his office found and that they should have looked at it sooner.
Between 2014 and 2019, there were 67 reported sexual assault incidents involving a federal inmate, according to the report. But because of the nature of these incidents, Dr. Zinger said, that’s almost certainly an undercount.
Instead, he said it’s likely these incidents are happening every single day. “This is what both staff and inmates reported, and I think they’re probably not far off,” he said.
“I’ve been in this business for a long time,” he said. “I was quite shocked.” The CSC had no strategy for protecting vulnerable inmates, he said.
Dr. Zinger said there’s no policy, training, education, initiative or program aimed at preventing sexual violence.
Ms. Mailhot, the CSC spokesperson, said the agency would work with Public Safety Canada to research sexual violence within its walls, and that an interim report was “set to be developed” by spring 2021.
She also said a “zero-tolerance approach to sexual coercion and violence is consistent with CSC’s policy and is fundamental to its operations.”
But according to Dr. Zinger, that isn’t currently the case. “They can claim they have a zero-tolerance approach, but there’s no evidence of such an approach,” he said.
The other two major studies that the Correctional Investigator’s annual report contained were on prison learning services and on therapeutic ranges in men’s maximum-security facilities.
TOM CARDOSO, CRIME AND JUSTICE REPORTER
The Globe and Mail, October 27, 2020