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Canada’s skyrocketing Indigenous prison population is only getting worse

New numbers show that the Indigenous and black population in prisons has increased significantly
The lower part of the F-Range in the maximum security prison Kingston Penitentiary in Kingston Ont., on October 2, 2013. Canada's oldest prison closed its doors on September 30, 2013. It was used as a penitentiary between 1835-2013. THE CANADIAN PRESS IMAGES/Lars Hagberg

Over the past decade the percentage of Indigenous and black inmates in Canadian prisons has risen dramatically, even as the population of white inmates has dropped, according to the latest figures from the office of the correctional investigator.

A number of troubling statistics were revealed in the report released Tuesday by Correctional Investigator Ivan Zinger.

Between 2007 and 2016, while the overall prison population increased by 4.9 percent,


  • The number of women who were incarcerated went up by 38 percent
  • The Indigenous prison population increased by 39 percent
  • The number of black inmates went up by 42 percent

Meanwhile, the population of white offenders has decreased by 14.7 percent — the only group to show a steadily declining population.

“The last 30 years, every single year, we’ve seen an increase in terms of the incarceration rate for Indigenous people,” said Zinger. “This is probably one of the number one human rights issues confronted by Canada.”

While Indigenous people make up less than five per cent of the Canadian population, yet make up 25 percent of the total inmate population. Just three percent of the population is black, yet they’re 10 percent of the prison population.

Zinger is pushing for the government to do more to allow Indigenous communities to oversee the care and custody of Indigenous offenders who would otherwise be in a federal prison and to be involved in the planning for their release.

“This is probably one of the number one human rights issues confronted by Canada.”

The Corrections and Conditional Release Act specifically empowers Indigenous communities to bring in traditional practises to the prison system, but Zinger says more needs to be done.

Healing lodges, which were also created as a result of the legislation, for example, are underfunded, the CBC reported earlier this month. The nine facilities, with a total of 347 beds across the country, are designed for Indigenous people to be rehabilitated outside of the prison setting, with the help of spiritual leaders and elders.


Out of nine healing lodges, the five that are co-managed by Indigenous communities have significantly lower budgets than those operated by Corrections Canada, making it harder to keep staff.

Zinger’s officer has also put in requests for a new position within corrections of deputy commissioner for indigenous offenders — over a quarter of incarcerated inmates are aboriginals — to create a consistent focus on the issue of overrepresentation.

The report also highlights a sharp decline in the use of segregation in federal prisons over the past two years. The daily count of inmates in segregation hovered around 400 inmates last year, compared to 800 in 2013-2014.

The average length of stay fell from 44 days in 2017 to 26 days last year, which also saw the lowest overall admissions to segregation of the past decade at 6,792.

Zinger says the trend is a result of efforts to curb the use of segregation that began two years ago, that included mental health units that started being set up in prisons across the country two years ago.

According to an audit from January, many of those who would’ve otherwise been placed in solitary confinement are ending up in one of 31 specialized units that have been established over the past two years for varying purposes — enhanced supervision, protective custody, drug free, intermediate mental health care, etc. “We’re quite pleased to see that. This was done without legislative amendments,” Zinger told VICE News, adding that he hopes to see legislative amendments to ensure that current gains remain, that the segregated population shrinks even further, and that vulnerable populations, like the mentally ill and younger offenders, are properly protected.