Despite decades of warnings, the number of Indigenous women in federal and provincial correctional facilities in British Columbia has plummeted to over 50%, an all-time high.

According to reports from the Federal Office of the Correctional Investigator, Dr. Ivan Zinger, this is the first time the numbers have risen so high in federal prisons, signaling severe overrepresentation.

At Fraser Valley Institution – the province’s only federal institution for women located in Abbotsford – the range is even higher at 58% according to statistics obtained from the Correctional Service of Canada (CSC). As of May 13, 2022, Fraser Valley Institution had 71 women offenders, 41 of whom are Indigenous.

While inmates at Fraser Valley Institution come from across Canada, women from British Columbia and the Prairies make up a larger population in federal penitentiaries, according to CSC spokespersons.

CSC did not have readily available data to indicate where women incarcerated in federal prisons came from, but said British Columbia and Saskatchewan provided higher figures. Indeed, the Aboriginal population is higher in these provinces compared to their overall population.

Provincial prison numbers in British Columbia are also increasing, and Indigenous women make up 41% of the total prison population.

As of May 18, 2022, there were 93 women in provincial custody in British Columbia, 38 of whom identified as Indigenous, the provincial Ministry of Public Safety and Solicitor General confirmed.

Of that number, 21% (eight) women have mailing addresses in northern British Columbia defined roughly as north of Williams Lake and are being held at the Prince George Regional Correctional Centre, the Department of Security said. public.

“Indigenous women in provincial custody have been charged or convicted of crimes against property, crimes against a person, or crimes that fall under the category of ‘other’, which includes traffic offenses under the Criminal Code , provincial motor vehicle offences, weapons, violation of conditional sentence orders and drug trafficking,” the department said in an email.

Socio-economic factors are huge determinants in understanding the crimes committed by most of these incarcerated women, explained Brigitte Bouchard, CSC’s Assistant Deputy Commissioner for Women and Marty Maltby, CSC’s Director of Aboriginal Initiatives.

Bouchard says a large number of women in federal prisons tend to be younger, come from poor communities, and have a history of trauma and low education.

When it comes to poverty, mental illness, and addiction as criminal issues, that also contributes to the total number of inmates.

Most of the crimes for which they have been convicted fall under what Bouchard calls survival crimes — financial fraud, gang ties and intimate partner violence, she added.

The vast majority of federal inmates are serving a maximum sentence of four years.

Bouchard and Maltby have seen a steady increase over the past decade in the number of Indigenous people in federal prisons.

“While we have a responsibility in the organization to manage their time in corrections and get them out and back into the community as soon as possible, in the safest way possible, the real challenge is the fact that we continue to see significant numbers coming to our doorsteps,” Maltby said.

Parole violations and suspensions, which bring women back into the system, also pose a challenge, he said.

“The reality is that many of these people are not returning to necessarily safe communities and lifestyles,” he said, adding that broader issues need to be addressed.

This means looking at the entire criminal justice system, including the police and the courts.

Decades-long failure between systems

Confronting an overrepresentation of Indigenous people in correctional systems is a three-decade failure, advocates of prison reform argue.

In 1999, the Supreme Court of Canada’s landmark Gladue decision (better known as the Gladue Principles) recognized Indigenous overrepresentation. The Gladue Principles ask judges to consider unique circumstances such as colonization and residential school history when determining sentencing.

But the practice is not uniformly applied outside specific courts for indigenous peoples, said Niru Turko, director of social justice and equity at the Elizabeth Fry Society. The Vancouver-based nonprofit works exclusively with women and girls involved in the Canadian justice system.

In 2015, the Call to Action of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) and the recommendations of the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls in 2019 highlighted the inability of existing structures to address against overrepresentation in prisons.

“Despite the TRC’s call to action to reduce the overrepresentation of Indigenous people in custody, numbers have increased by approximately 18% over the past decade, while numbers for the non-Indigenous population have declined by 28 % over the same period,” Turko said.

On May 20, the BC Prosecution Service (BCPS) proposed policy changes in its guiding principles for prosecutors in their efforts to address overrepresentation in prisons. The prosecution service began developing policies in 2017 to handle cases involving Indigenous people.

“By revising several key policies and implementing new ones, BCPS aimed to change the way it deals with cases involving Indigenous people: as victims, as witnesses, and as accused,” said BCPS spokesperson Dan McLaughlin said in an email.

The Province of British Columbia has recognized that rates of victimization for Indigenous people, especially Indigenous women and girls, are significantly higher than for non-Indigenous people. The Crown has also acknowledged that wrongful convictions resulting from problematic evidence – misidentification by an eyewitness, flawed forensic evidence, false confessions, etc. – are a factor that must be taken into account in this matter.

Asked about the failure to reduce the overrepresentation of Indigenous women in provincial prisons and whether existing policies are ineffective, McLaughlin added that the causes are complex and diverse.

He said the prosecution is only one player in this complex process.

“Acting alone, we cannot eliminate systemic discrimination or the unacceptable overrepresentation of Indigenous people in the criminal justice system,” McLaughlin said.

“Time will tell if our efforts, and those of other players in the system, will have a real impact on the overrepresentation of Indigenous people in detention.

But Turko said policymakers are working in broken systems and still need to exert wholehearted effort and find solutions to reduce overrepresentation.

The incarceration of mothers replicates the colonial system that disrupts parenthood, kinship and community bonds. Placing their children in government custody perpetuates negative childhood experiences, broken relationships and the risk of future involvement with the justice system, she said.

“The replication of systems that have proven not to be in the best interests of Indigenous peoples or effective in reducing crime or improving public safety, must be re-examined and with the right people around the table and the right people talking about the situation. ,” she says.

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