Rev. Carol Finlay is the founder and director of Book Clubs for Inmates
I have been going into Canada's penitentiaries for the past seven years. Over this time, some drastic changes have taken place in the way Correctional Service Canada (CSC) treats prisoners.
Double bunking, mandatory minimum sentences and inmate pay cuts have turned the prisons into places of hopelessness and anger. Whereas the men's prisons have become more violent as a result, the women's have become places of despair and depression. There are five women's prisons in Canada serving the five CSC regions. Because there are only five, inmates are rarely incarcerated close to home. Also, indigenous people are vastly overrepresented in prison populations: 68 per cent of federally incarcerated female inmates are indigenous (Edmonton Institution for Women is more than 90 per cent, according to the CSC).
Our prisons are a continuation of the harm done to indigenous peoples through the residential schools. There's a strong connection between this harm done and the violence, substance abuse and crime we see in the children and grandchildren of former students of the schools.
Incarcerating indigenous women, especially those who are far from their people and cut off from their culture, is a repetition of what happened in the schools. Few families have the means to visit. When a man goes into prison, often his wife or partner keeps in touch, and the family, although fragile, has a chance of survival. When a woman goes into prison, she is often the sole support to the family, and her children go into foster care. This is a huge issue for female inmates, often resulting in or exacerbating mental illness: About 60 per cent of women in penitentiaries are mentally ill. CSC administrators say it's their biggest issue.
When you enter a women's prison, you can feel despair, hopelessness and depression. It's both palpable and horrifying. Cut off from their families and culture, and locked up in a "white man's justice system" makes these women ill, both mentally and physically. There aren't enough psychologists to give meaningful talk therapy, so women are medicated. I have been in book club circles in which I am aware that most of the women are on mood-altering medications. I was told in one institution that as soon as a woman enters the system, she goes to a special unit where she is "stabilized" with medication.
Early on in my visits to the women's penitentiaries, I realized that there were no books written by, or relating to, the cultures of Canadian indigenous people in the libraries. My organization, Book Clubs for Inmates, then bought sets of books written by some of our great aboriginal writers, and these titles are on all our lists for the book clubs. Although we are pleased to help, and have privately donated funds, we wonder why we should have to do this?
One of the main issues relating to the prevalent despair of the women is that there is no meaningful job training inside. When they are released, the women can only get minimum-wage jobs, not enough to support their children and get them back. Thus we have here all the same marks of the residential schools: Indigenous people cut off from their families and culture, and families, which are already broken, unable to be reunited after incarceration.
Indigenous peoples were badly served by Canada's residential schools. Many of the schools' children are now in the penitentiaries because of crime that is related to the destruction of their families by these very schools. Prisons further break down family life and exacerbate the cycle of poverty, crime and violence both on and off the reserves.
We all need to become more educated about what is happening to indigenous people in prisons, especially in the women's prisons as these problems are the most extreme and damaging for future generations. If we don't address these issues, we become complicit in the ongoing tragedy of the residential schools.