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Jails brimming with aboriginal inmates

Katie May
Northern News Services
Published Monday, August 17, 2009

SOMBA K'E/YELLOWKNIFE - Though aboriginal people account for only a small percentage of Canada's population, they continue to be over-represented in jails across the country.

In the NWT, where 45 per cent of the adult population is aboriginal, the percentage of aboriginal prisoners is highest in the country at 86 per cent, according to a Statistics Canada study released last month.

Saskatchewan had highest proportion of aboriginal prisoners in 2007-2008, at 81 per cent, even though aboriginal people make up only 11 per cent of that province's adult population.

Nationally, adult aboriginals make up three per cent of the population but account for 22 per cent of those sentenced to custody.

Researchers surveyed prisoners across the country to find out whether education and employment levels might be contributing factors to a person's chance of being sentenced to custody.

The NWT didn't participate in that survey, but analysts concluded that while a lack of work or education does generally increase one's risk of ending up in jail, there are many other factors to consider, such as drug and alcohol abuse.

"That's true for all people, but our analysis shows that aboriginal people have more risks associated to them and that those risks are generally higher than the non-aboriginal people," said Donna Calverley, an analyst with the Canadian Centre for Justice Statistics.

Calverley said though people who work in correctional fields have long noticed the over-representation of aboriginals in custody, the centre hopes its research will have practical implications for change.

"We're hoping that this information will lead educators, people who discuss policy, policymakers, to use this information when they're deciding the best course of action for their next policy or their next bill," she said. "We're hoping that the educators will take this and discuss with their students, you know, 'this is what you need to do.'"

Colin Gordon, director of corrections at the GNWT Department of Justice, said correctional centres in the territory do offer cultural programs geared toward aboriginal prisoners, but that most of the focus is on meeting the needs of individual offenders - regardless of race - so they don't end up back in jail.

Involvement in drug and alcohol abuse is a major factor in how and why offenders wind up in jail, according to Gordon, who cited employability, education, training and economic opportunity as others.

"We take them as they come and we have to assess their needs, we have to address their needs, we have to prepare them as best we can for release," he said. "Everybody gets out someday."