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Prisons Are Not a Pathway to Healing and Reconciliation

28 Jul 2021
By Dr Vicki Chartrand
Indigenous Canadians testify in the British Columbia government during a session on recognizing and protecting the rights of Indigenous Peoples in 2019. Source: Province of British Columbia

Incarceration rates for Indigenous people are disproportionately high. Through a deeper understanding of modern-day colonialism and conscientious investment in Indigenous communities, this can be reversed.

Today, Indigenous people in the land known as Canada make up 30 percent of the federal prison population while only comprising 5 percent of the general population. Indigenous people also experience the more punitive aspects of the prison system, such as serving longer periods of their sentence in prison. They are more likely to be given Dangerous Offender designations, and are more often classified as higher risk and designated to higher security classifications. Indigenous people experience more use of force interventions, self-injury, and longer periods of solitary confinement.

Consequently, these trends are also well documented across other settler countries like Australia, New Zealand, and the United States. While these ongoing and comparatively similar trends across jurisdictions suggest we need to consider the context of colonialism in its current arrangements, understanding the links between the two needs a little more unearthing.

Modern Day Colonialism

It is impossible to talk about Indigenous incarceration today without interfacing with colonialism. While it is true that the prison system was not developed specifically for Indigenous people in the same way as reserves and residential schools, it is hard to ignore the sombre reality that the prison system disproportionately targets and penalises Indigenous people on a much greater scale.

Traditionally, the ongoing correctional strategy to address these trends has been to “Indigenize” prisons by introducing cultural training for staff and Indigenous programming, hiring Indigenous staff, advisors, and elders, and carrying out community consultations. Despite these ongoing efforts to reverse these trends since the 1960’s, the rates of Indigenous incarceration have only increased  every year since. This ongoing carceral increase and disparity in treatment indicates that attempts to reverse these trends over the years are not only failing but that the prison is beyond remedy or reform.

To understand and address these ongoing trends and failure in this correctional strategy, it is essential to locate them in the broader context of an ongoing colonialism across the country today. This includes the widespread boil-water advisories across reserves, the wave of hardship and grief from the unmarked graves of Indigenous children forced into residential schools, the exponentially high rates of Indigenous children in the child welfare and foster care systems, the thousands of missing and murdered Indigenous women, girls and Two-Spirit+ people, and the economically starved communities or in other words “poverty by design,” to only name a few.

Taken in conjunction with this, the prison system is yet another aspect of modern-day colonialism. The tendency, however, is to project colonialism as something of the past whereby the ongoing colonial harms are frequently ignored, minimised, or trivialised. This gives the appearance that what exists today for Indigenous people is only a symptom or legacy of “historical wrongs.” As a result, the structural and systemic manner by which Indigenous people continue to be colonised are rarely explored and rarely, if ever, linked to incarceration.

Reversing the Trends

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada in their Calls to Action #30 has explicitly made the elimination of the high rates of Indigenous imprisonment a priority for Canada. To achieve this end, this means that all initiatives and actions must incorporate an understanding of how colonialism interweaves into the policies, practices, and decision-making processes at every level of the justice system, including the prison itself.

More often than not, when a colonial context is considered, such as with Gladue principles or restorative justice practices, it is often only an add-on to the system and is given less priority over other factors or criteria. Moreover, a colonial context is only considered at the individual level while the institution itself is rarely, if ever, given any scrutiny. As Saleh-Hanna argues “crimes of enslavement within plantations, chain gangs, reservations and penitentiaries are shielded from moral interrogation while processes of confinement (whom, how and for how long) conveniently take precedence.”

To reduce the numbers of Indigenous people in prisons would first require a move away from the system. There is often an assumption that once a sentence is delivered, there is little else that can be done to change the prison trajectory. Far from it, there are multiple existing decarceration strategies and community options available to prison authorities, particularly those outlined in Section 81 and 84 of the Corrections and Conditional Release Act (1992), whereby Indigenous people in prison can serve their sentence and parole in a supported way in the community. This, of course, would require the much needed supports and resources in the community.

Equally important in reducing Indigenous incarceration trends is addressing the conditions that foster and heighten ongoing colonial trends. This would include 1) investing in community self-determination, including the honouring of land and treaty agreements and investing in community based and led initiatives; 2) providing safe and accessible housing and a basic livable income; and 3) investing in care, wellness, and healing. In other words, we need to divest from punitive responses to a colonial problem and invest in those areas of life that support and build people up.

Linking Indigenous incarceration trends to the colonial context occurring across the land known as Canada not only provides a better understanding to the problem, it also offers better solutions to it. Understanding how the structures and logics of colonialism persist today is essential to any discussion of addressing Canada’s so-called “past harms.” A past that is separated from the present and that exonerates our systems from right action is not a pathway to healing and reconciliation.

Dr Vicki Chartrand is a Mama and Associate Professor in the Sociology Department at Bishop’s University, Québec, the traditional and unceded territory of the Abenaki people. Her general research includes penal and carceral politics, modern day colonialism, grassroots justices and collaborative methodologies. She also has over 15 years of experience advocating for and with women and children, Indigenous communities and people in prison.;

This article is published under a Creative Commons License and may be republished with attribution.