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Prison watchdog says officials ‘defending the status quo’ on aboriginal incarceration

Howard Sapers, Correctional Investigator of Canada, hold a news conference to speak to the findings and recommendations of a report on incarceration of aboriginal peoples on March 7, 2013. Mr. Sapers said the lukewarm response to his report from corrections officials “looked sadly familiar.”

Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

Canada's prisons ombudsman says the willingness of corrections officials to brush off his urgent call to address the swelling number of aboriginals behind bars suggests they are blind to the issue.

The Correctional Service of Canada (CSC) posted an online reply Friday to a report this week by Howard Sapers, the Correctional Investigator, which indicated that the agency has little interest in taking the steps urged by Mr. Sapers to curb the disproportional and growing number of first nations, Inuit and Metis prisoners.

"When I saw their response, the first thing that came to mind was that they were defending the status quo, that it just does not at all address the substance or the urgency of the matters that were raised in the report that was tabled (Friday)," Mr. Sapers said in a telephone interview with The Globe and Mail.

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"In fact," he said, "much of their response I have read before. It looked sadly familiar and just indicates to me that the Correctional Service of Canada does not believe that they've got a problem."

The CSC rejected Mr. Sapers' call for a new Deputy Commissioner for Aboriginal Corrections to co-ordinate action between the agency, federal partners and aboriginal communities. The agency said its Senior Deputy Commissioner already performs that function.

It also dismissed his suggestion that more money be requested to create beds at healing lodges which could divert prisoners out of penitentiaries saying aboriginal offenders in prison already have access to culturally appropriate services.

And of Mr. Sapers' other recommendations, the agency either said they were inappropriate or there are programs already in place to address his concerns.

Mr. Sapers' report accuses the government of mounting an "insufficient response" to the ballooning incarceration of aboriginal men and women in the two decades since it was acknowledged by Parliament to be a problem.

The population of aboriginal inmates in federal penitentiaries increase by 43 per cent in the past five years alone. And, while aboriginal people comprise just 4 per cent of the Canadian population, they make up 23 per cent of the federal inmate population and account for one in three federally sentenced women.

First nations, Métis and Inuit offenders are less likely to get parole than other inmates, and they are more likely to serve their sentence in more restricted conditions like segregated units, they are overrepresented in maximum security and they are more likely to see their parole revoked.

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Mr. Sapers described the disparity as a cloud Canada's human-rights record and said the problem will only get worse if it is ignored. But the response of the CSC left him with little reason for optimism that the agency was prepared to do the work he says is necessary.

"Of course I am going to have to work through this response with the Correctional Services and probably raise it as well with the Minister of Public Safety," said Mr. Sapers. "The response does not move on the concerns at all and doing more of the same is simply not going to address the issues that were raised."

Sarah Parkes, a spokeswoman for the correctional service, said in an e-mail that enhancing the ability to provide effective interventions for first nations, Métis and Inuit offenders is a priority for the agency and will remain a significant focus moving forward. The CSC is actively pursuing strategies to provide effective, innovative and multi-faceted interventions for Aboriginal offenders, including healing lodges and culturally appropriate correctional programs that provide a holistic approach to addressing criminal behaviour, said Ms. Parkes.

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