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‘Repressive,’ ‘risk-averse’ corrections system needs parliamentary oversight, says Sen. Pate

By Samantha Wright Allen      

Several committees are studying the overrepresentation of Indigenous people in Canadian prisons. With the disparity widening every year, Sen. Kim Pate says Corrections Canada needs a judicial or parliamentary body holding it to account.

A 'tireless' advocate for prison reform, Independent Senator Kim Pate says she'll only stay in the Senate if she can 'affect some change.'
The Hill Times photograph by Andrew Meade

Almost every day since she was named to the Senate last November, Kim Pate has received a letter or phone call from an inmate. In her Ottawa office, there are boxes full of messages from prisoners who the longtime advocate said she feels a responsibility to serve.

Many have her cellphone number, she said, and “know they can call.” 

In her new role, Independent Sen. Pate (Ontario) maintains the pace of almost-monthly visits to prisons she kept as executive director of the Canadian Association of Elizabeth Fry Societies, a post she held for 24 years.

“I would never have to step into another prison to know things have to radically change,” said Sen. Pate in an interview Nov. 23 after she testified in front of a House committee studying Indigenous people in prison.

During that meeting, and speaking afterwards to The Hill Times, Sen. Pate called for mechanisms to make Corrections Canada accountable, ideally through judicial oversight. In the meantime Sen. Pate said Parliament should step in.

“In the nearly four decades that I’ve been doing this work, I have yet to see Corrections be able to correct itself,” said Sen. Pate, who is a member of the Order of Canada and a Governor General’s Award recipient.

Senator Kim Pate listens to a man being held in the segregation unit at a prison near Kingston, Ont. Photograph courtesy of Senate of Canada

Three parliamentary committees are examining Canada’s prison system, including the Senate Committee on Human Rights—which Sen. Pate sits on and will soon table an interim report—and the House Status of Women Committee, which is planning to study the overrepresentation of incarcerated Indigenous women, vice-chair and Liberal MP Pam Damoff (Oakville North-Burlington, Ont.) confirmed.

“We have created a system that has become more and more risk averse,” Sen. Kim Pate told the House Public Safety and National Security Committee members. “It’s become more and more repressive.”

She spent much of her testimony pointing to existing legislation that could help address the “vast overrepresentation” of Indigenous men and women in the system through transfers, but said those possibilities have been “severely restricted” by policy.

According to the 2017 Correctional Investigator report, Indigenous offenders make up 26.4 per cent of federal inmates despite making up less than five per cent of the Canadian population. Indigenous women are one of the fastest growing segments in the prison population, comprising 37.6 per cent of women inmates. Indigenous inmates are also more likely to experience segregation. In the last decade, while the prison population increased by less than five per cent, the number of Indigenous incarcerations increased by 39 per cent.

“To my mind, the year-on-year increase in the over-representation of Indigenous people in Canadian jails and prisons is among this country’s most pressing social justice and human rights issues,” Correctional Investigator Ivan Zinger said in his 2017 report.

Ms. Damoff echoed his assessment, calling it the “No. 1 human rights issue,” one that is not new and, sadly, “not getting any better.” 

Liberal MP Pam Damoff is on two committees studying Indigenous people in Canadian prisons. The Hill Times file photograph

Sen. Pate told the committee the Corrections and Conditional Release Act has three sections designed to encourage sentences served in Aboriginal communities or transfers out of the system. Few are aware of these options, or efforts to put them in use are blocked.

The approach is in line with Truth and Reconciliation Commission recommendations on justice, Sen. Pate noted, which call on all governments “to work with Aboriginal communities to provide culturally relevant services to inmates on issues,” more healing lodges and Aboriginal-specific programs “with appropriate evaluation mechanisms.”

Oversight needed to correct Corrections

Corrections Canada’s decision-making needs independent oversight, but because that doesn’t exist Sen. Pate said she’d like to see a joint parliamentary body watching over the department.

“I don’t want to be too prescriptive in terms of presuming what it would look like but I do think there are opportunities for House and Senate … to look at how could we be calling [Corrections Canada] to account,” she said.

A joint parliamentary committee could summon a minister to answer for breaches of law and policy by correctional authorities and guide “proactive progressive and remedial action,” she said, noting that while the correctional investigator has the power to subpoena, it’s never made that move and the office has no remedial power.

“A parliamentary committee could lend authority and assistance to the efforts of the [investigator], auditor general and help provide direction to and for the judiciary vis-a-vis corrections,” she said.

Ms. Damoff said she couldn’t comment on recommendations until the security committee is finished its work, but said that Sen. Pate, a “tireless advocate,” came with concrete suggestions.

The government has recognized Canada isn’t reintegrating Aboriginal offenders at the same rate, said Ms. Damoff, pointing to Budget 2017’s $65.2-million over five years for rehabilitation efforts to reverse the trend in overrepresentation.

Sen. Pate said she’s “very serious” about pushing for change and said she needs to talk to chairs of the various committees for a path forward, but the body shouldn’t be “just for oversight sake, but to help keep things moving in a positive direction.”

Sen. Pate based her recommendation on that of a 1996 report by former Supreme Court justice Louise Arbour, who envisioned a mechanism for inmates to bring claims to court if their treatment “interfered with the integrity” of a sentence, like excessive force, lack of access to programs, false security classifications and segregation. Sen. Pate’s biography says she’s “widely credited as the driving force” behind the inquiry.

She encouraged other committee members to visit prisons, especially since Parliamentarians have a right of access.

“I haven’t tested that in a crisis yet,” she said in an interview after, adding she “absolutely” would if necessary. She’s been kicked out of correctional facilities or denied entry many times, notably when trying to visit New Brunswick teen Ashley Smith, who died in 2007 in her segregation cell by self-strangulation while under suicide watch.

One of the only reasons she said she agreed to accept the Senate appointment was because of its mandate to represent the most vulnerable and marginalized Canadians. 

“If it turns out I can’t do more [in Senate] and I could do more by being in the community, I would not stay in a role where I can’t… affect some change,” she said, adding in the past she declined political party overtures for her as a candidate because none had “sufficiently progressive” social and criminal justice policies.

Auditor general Michael Ferguson presented his fall 2017 report last week on a number of issues, including preparing women offenders for release and Correctional Service Canada. The Hill Times photograph by Andrew Meade

Sen. Pate’s testimony came two days after auditor general Michael Ferguson released findings that Correctional Service Canada’s security classification system was being applied improperly to women.

It placed twice as many women in higher security than was recommended by what Sen. Pate called an “already discriminatory tool.”

Classification influences whether a person is placed in minimum, medium, or maximum security, what programs they can access, when they are granted parole and the types of conditions they’re placed on once back in the community. As with all other indicators, Indigenous women fared worse with less access to services, including limited availability for culturally specific programs and were released on parole later.

Corrections has ignored “excellent research” commissioned by the government more than a decade ago, Sen. Pate told the committee, noting recommended minimum security classification for women in most cases.

That’s why she thinks a judicial or joint parliamentary body might be the best chance for change—something she doesn’t think can happen with the status quo setup and political decisions bound by an electoral cycle.

“It requires a push, a broader political will [to] make policy changes to do things differently,” she said.


The Hill Times

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