Aboriginal women make up 27% of inmates in federal prison. This is very alarming, but even more so when you consider Aboriginal people only make up 1.5% of Canada’s population.
These inflated statistics are due in large part to inadequate social programs offered for those who need it most. Support groups on most reserves are almost non-existent. A large number of female Aboriginal offenders have no-where to turn, and end up in jail as a result.
Kim Pate, executive director of the Elizabeth Fry association of Canada, believes that the closing of specially equipped hospitals is one of the factors of the escalation in crime. “It’s often their behaviour, their attempt to survive on the street that leads them to be criminalized.”
“Because they’re already in prison, the behavior is less likely to be seen first and foremost as a function of their mental health label, and more likely to be considered bad behaviour and punished.”
This can lead to longer time spent in prison with no chance of real rehabilitation until they get out. Even when they’re released, help is hard to find.
The Elizabeth Fry association focus’s on helping all women, not just Aboriginals. They work hard in fighting for women’s rights. They are also there to aid those women who are in abusive situations, and can’t help themselves.
According to Pate, judges will sometimes increase sentences in order for the inmate to get the help they need inside. Instead of releasing them into the same hopeless situation which got them imprisoned in the first place.
The services available to inmates inside the prison are inadequate at best. They also don’t apply to Aboriginals. The federal prison system does not offer cultural activities that are relative to the reality of Native people.
The best place to help combat these situations is to make sure the support is available on every reserve. Building new facilities is a must and will go a long way towards keeping Native people out of jail and in their community where they can get the help they need.
“If the reason someone’s in jail is because they’re trying to survive a community that is pretty inhospitable to them, then the reality is the problem is not going to be solved by sending them to prison and putting them in a program,” said Pate.
Not all Aboriginal women in prison still live on their reserve. Elisa Johnson, justice coordinator for the Native Women’s Association of Canada (NWAC) said that in some cases, the move off reserve creates even more difficult problems.
“The movement of women off the reserves and into the cities in hopes of getting a job, or getting an education, or having a different life, created other more complicated problems. Sometimes women end up on the street or end up in a domestic violence situation.”
When someone, regardless of race is sent to prison, there is an initial assessment. They look at everything from your whole family and personal history. From that assessment, they are able to decide whether the individual is at a high risk to re-offend. Social conditions, poverty, and overall malaise on Native reserves usually add up to a poor score.
This is something which most native people have no control over.
“Correctional services Canada needs to throw out the initial assessment that they currently use which is based on the average non-native male. It doesn’t apply to our Aboriginal men, but it applies even less to our Aboriginal women. They need to take that system and revamp it. They should replace it with one that’s culturally based,” stated Johnson.
She believes that something similar to the Healing lodge in Maple Creek Saskatchewan (Neek Aneet Cree territory) is desperately needed around the country. “What we’ve seen is the recidivism rate of Aboriginal women who have gone to the Healing lodge is lower than those who haven’t.”
On March 8th 2001 Elizabeth Fry, and NWAC launched a complaint with the human rights commission against the government of Canada based on sex, race, and the treatment of women prisoners. The commission will release their findings in the fall of this year.
The Assembly of First Nations, and amnesty international are two of the more prominent groups who support the complaint.
“If we do not get a favorable response then we’ll be taking it to the international market. Canada purports in the international market that we have an incredibly good system of corrections. We’re touted all over the world as being the best,” stated Johnson.
In this case, ‘being the best’ loses something in the translation from ^ theory to practice.