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The Number of Female Indigenous Prisoners in Canada Has Doubled in the Last Decade

The most recent report from Canada's prison watchdog also found rampant pepper spray use by prison guards.

Rachel Browne

Photo via Flickr user Fred Dunn

This article originally appeared on VICE Canada.

The number of Indigenous people now represent more than a quarter of all inmates held in Canada's federal prisons, according to the new annual report from Canada's prison watchdog.

And within the last decade, the number of female Indigenous inmates has doubled, while the population of male Indigenous inmates has increased by more than 50 percent. During that time, the federal inmate population increased by only 10 percent.

"It's a shameful milestone in Canadian history," correctional investigator Howard Sapers told a press conference on Monday.

His annual report, which also says Indigenous women represent 35 percent of inmates in federal prisons, serves to highlight his concerns about federal correctional facilities, which house offenders who have been sentenced to more than two years in prison.

Sapers has previously pointed out that just 30 years ago, Indigenous people comprised 10 percent of the federal inmate population. And they represent just four percent of Canada's general population.

READ MORE: Why Indigenous Women Are Canada's Fastest Growing Prison Population

The report notes that Indigenous prisoners are more likely to be held in solitary confinement and in maximum security facilities than non-Aboriginal inmates.

Last week, there was an uproar after it was revealed that Adam Capay, a 24-year-old Indigenous man, was being held in solitary confinement in a Thunder Bay, Ontario jail for more than four years without trial. Sapers was asked about the case but said he couldn't comment because it's under provincial jurisdiction.

He did describe Capay's situation as "very troubling" and that his office has never heard of a case like his in federal prisons.

"Segregation should be rare, it should be a last resort," said Sapers. "Until we have a legislated cap, I am concerned that segregation could go on indefinitely is still possible."

For years, Sapers has called on the federal corrections department to appoint a deputy commissioner dedicated entirely to improving the system for Indigenous offenders, and has said that efforts to curb the disproportionate number of Indigenous offenders aren't working.

In addition to decrying the increase in Indigenous offenders, his report also sounds the alarm over a dramatic increase in guards using "inflammatory agents" such as pepper spray against inmates. The number of incidents involving the use of pepper spray against inmates has more than tripled since 2011, and more than one-third of those incidents involved inmates suffering from mental illnesses.

Image from Annual Report of the Office of the Correctional Investigator, 2015-2016

"Pepper spray has become the 'go-to' tool for inducing inmate compliance and managing security incidents in federal prisons. Reliance on coercive measures has largely displaced other less invasive methods of resolving tension and conflict behind bars," said a news release about the report.

Because there are no national standards around how often or when pepper spray can be used by correctional officers, an inmate can be sprayed for refusing orders, not just when or if they are determined to be a harm to themselves or others.

At the news conference, Sapers said prisons are meant to be places where offenders can overcome the root causes of their offences, and eventually transition back into the community.

"It's difficult to do that when you're being pepper-sprayed," he said.

Corrections Canada has said it will review the use of pepper spray in its facilities.

The crime rate in Canada is one of the lowest it's been in decades.

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