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Fight against systemic racism in prison wins all-party support

The Globe and Mail | Tom Cardoso, Crime and justice reporter | Janice Dickson
Published October 26, 2020

MPs from all parties on a House of Commons committee say they support studying systemic discrimination in federal prisons, including inmate risk assessments, days after a Globe and Mail investigation found these tools are biased against Indigenous and Black people.

Jack Harris, the NDP’s public safety critic, said before a meeting of the public safety committee that a study is an “extremely high” priority after he introduced a motion that calls for “immediate measures to be taken to provide expeditious redress for systemic discrimination in federal prisons, including risk assessments.” Indigenous and Black inmates are over-represented in high-security prisons, the motion says, and serve “longer incarcerations” with “limited access to programs and parole.”

Committee members met on Monday evening, but would not say whether Mr. Harris’ motion was raised or if a vote was held because it was not a public session. However, members from each party told The Globe they support studying the issue.

Globe and Mail investigation revealed that after accounting for variables like age, offence severity and criminal history, the standardized tests were biased against Black and Indigenous men. The tests, which measure the risk that an inmate of a federal prison would pose to public safety upon release, play a significant role in determining prison placement, the programs and services inmates can access, and their chances of getting parole.

The analysis of Correctional Service of Canada (CSC) data found that Black men were almost 24 per cent more likely to end up with the worst security classification compared with white men. It also showed that Indigenous men were nearly 30 per cent more likely than white men to receive the worst score for reintegration potential. And after accounting for their reintegration scores, it found that both groups were less likely than white men to reoffend.

“We knew that there was discriminatory treatment,” Mr. Harris said. “We didn’t know the why and the how – and now that we do, there appears to be a means to seek to correct it. Someone should be stepping in.”

The Office of the Correctional Investigator estimates Indigenous and Black people account for about 30 and 10 per cent of inmates respectively, even though they represent less than 5 and 4 per cent of the Canadian population. Spokespeople for the CSC and Public Safety Minister Bill Blair have said more is needed to address systemic racism in the prison system. Mr. Blair’s spokespeople also said he would meet with Anne Kelly, the head of the CSC, to ensure inmates are assessed appropriately.

Monday evening’s committee meeting was scheduled to include a public session at which Mr. Blair was to appear with Ms. Kelly, RCMP Commissioner Brenda Lucki, David Vigneault, the director of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, and John Ossowski, president of Canada Border Services Agency. Mr. Blair’s office said that part of the meeting was cancelled because of scheduling conflicts.

Liberal MP John McKay, chair of the public safety committee, said the issue of racism in Canada’s prisons has caught his personal interest and that of other committee members. He said he would support a study of the issue. “I think it would be worth looking into, very much worth looking into,” he said, adding that he hopes the public session is rescheduled for early next week.

Bloc Québécois member Kristina Michaud and Conservative MP Shannon Stubbs, the committee’s vice-chairs, said they support Mr. Harris’s proposal.

“When Minister Bill Blair does finally decide to appear at our committee, we plan to ask him what steps he has taken to address issues of racism in the departments and agencies that he leads,” Ms. Stubbs said in a statement.

“Our committee is currently engaged in a study looking into issues of systemic racism in law enforcement. We support the committee looking into the correctional system as well,” she said.

Senator Murray Sinclair, who led the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, said senior political and correctional leaders
must be held responsible. “I think that the Commissioner of Corrections, as well as the senior officials of each of the institutions and the [Public Safety] Minister themselves need to be held to account.”

Mr. Sinclair was a judge in Manitoba for more than two decades, and said he has witnessed the impact of risk assessments. When he was on the bench, he often recommended treatments for people he had sentenced, he said, but they were ignored after the person went through their intake risk assessments at a correctional facility.

Mr. Sinclair said CSC has long known about issues with its risk assessments.

“They’ve been promising for years to do something about bias in the intake process,” he said. “But the bias is not so much about individuals needing more training, it’s about the fact that the assessment tools that they’re using are so inappropriate.”

According to Mr. Sinclair, the CSC can’t be trusted to deal with systemic issues. “That’s been the case for years,” he said, citing the government’s slow response to recommendations of an inquiry into the 2007 death of Ashley Smith. Not much has changed, he said, and the CSC’s lack of action on assessments is no different.

The Supreme Court of Canada ruled in 2018 that the CSC had not done enough to ensure its psychological risk assessment tools were reliable for Indigenous people, and ordered it look into whether they are biased. Two years before that, the Office of the Auditor-General found that Indigenous men received the worst security-level scores more frequently than other inmates. At the time, the CSC said it would look at designing Indigenous-specific risk assessments.

A senate committee is already studying this issue. A 2019 interim report noted risk scores were a frequent point of concern for inmates and correctional experts. Senator Wanda Bernard previously told The Globe she hopes a final report will be ready in 2021.