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Photo by Peter Power/The Globe and MailPeter Power/The Globe and Mail

Prisons are, by definition, grim places. For aboriginal Canadians there is a particular bleakness. The difference between them and other inmates in this country's penal institutions is both striking and disturbing.

First Nations people are disproportionately represented in federal prisons – roughly 4 per cent of the population outside the walls, but roughly 25 per cent within them – and a new report from Public Safety Canada indicates they often stay inside appreciably longer than non-natives.

For example, whereas roughly 30 per cent of non-aboriginal inmates qualified for some form of early supervised release in 2013-14, only 15 per cent of native prisoners did. This matters because statistics suggest those who earn early parole have more success getting their lives back on track.

This unexplained disparity between native and non-native parole rates does not prove that the justice system, including the parole board, is somehow stacked against natives. It may, instead, be a symptom of a large ailment.

Aboriginal prisoners generally enter the correctional system earlier in life and suffer more frequently from brutal personal circumstances – addiction, chronic poverty, abusive childhoods. They are more likely to be put into solitary confinement. And more than 40 per cent of all inmates who remain in custody beyond their statutory release date are aboriginal, according to the report.

All this, though judges are constrained by federal law to consider alternative forms of sentencing for native offenders.

There may well be wider systemic problems, but at minimum the Public Safety document adds to a mounting aggregation of statistics concerning a troubled community.

It's not a situation where a benevolent authority can simply make the numbers more equal at the stroke of a pen. This is a sign of a large social catastrophe that took decades to develop.

It reinforces the urgency, voiced recently by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, for a concerted multi-jurisdictional effort to improve the lot of aboriginal communities.

Left alone, the situation will worsen. The first place it will become apparent will be in Canada's prisons. In a sense, it already has.

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