A Globe and Mail investigation that started two years ago sought sentencing records from the Correctional Service of Canada. The aim was to shine a light on race issues in federal jails, where inmates serve at least two years and sometimes many more.
The CSC eventually provided a vast Excel spreadsheet filled with data about the incarcerated lives of close to 50,000 people. After months of work, including a detailed statistical analysis that was vetted and verified several times, one clear conclusion emerged: The CSC’s assessments of inmates are racially biased.
The data showed that Black men are much more likely than white men to be given the lowest score on their initial security rating. This is a key assessment, a gauge that defines a person’s time in jail, and in particular their opportunities for rehabilitation.
A second finding revealed bias in another critical assessment. Indigenous men are much more likely than white men to be put on the lowest rung on the “reintegration” scale, a crucial measure that shapes a person’s parole.
The Globe’s work marked the first time CSC data has been investigated at this depth. But this is hardly the first time Canada has been confronted with these truths. The Globe investigation confirms, rather than unveils, longstanding unaddressed problems in federal prisons.
A 2018 Supreme Court of Canada ruling found the CSC had not ensured its assessments were untainted by cultural bias. The ruling also highlighted that Indigenous offenders are more likely to be chalked up as security risks, to be put in segregation, and to serve more time before release.
All of this exists within a broader problem: Canada needs to dial back incarceration from unduly harsh levels. Canada puts people behind bars at a far higher rate than most European countries, and far too many of them are non-violent offenders. The goal of prison in Canada is supposed to be rehabilitation, but the balance between punishment and rehabilitation has tilted in the wrong direction.
There is no doubt the CSC has a difficult job. But it has also repeatedly failed to improve. The Globe’s revelations about bias in assessments is just more evidence the CSC’s practices are out of date. An overhaul is necessary. Yet the “tough on crime” mantra of many politicians is still prevalent, stalling any real hopes for reform.
The real problems start outside the walls of a jail. The root causes of crime are poverty, trauma and lack of economic opportunity.
This is especially true for Indigenous people. The ugliest and easiest to understand statistics bear this out. Indigenous people represent 30 per cent of the population in federal jails – but make up only 5 per cent of Canada’s population. Black people account for close to 10 per cent of federal inmates but just 4 per cent of the general population.
Inside jails, attempted reforms – in particular, of solitary confinement – have been ineffective.
While some form of solitary confinement is necessary to protect inmates, it must have strict limits. The United Nations considers solitary beyond 15 days akin to torture – and Canadian courts have ruled that duration unconstitutional.
The CSC has made progress, more than halving the number of inmates in solitary in the five years prior to 2019.
The federal government has since instituted a new, supposedly more humane, version of solitary called “structured intervention units.” Yet a new report this week found about half of people in such units are there for more than 15 days, and almost all them are deprived of their legislated four daily hours outside their cell.
And, again, Indigenous and Black people are disproportionately represented in these units.
The bottom line is that our federal prison system is failing at its chief mission, which is to help inmates rejoin society without being a threat to it.
There are other, more successful models. Germany jails fewer people, for shorter spans, and in better conditions. It gets better results for less money, cash that could be reinvested in communities that need help.
For that to happen here, our federal prisons need to be given the funding required to properly do their job. And the justice system needs to send far fewer people their way in the first place.
There is no more evidence necessary.
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