Last month, federal prison watchdog Howard Sapers presented his annual reportin Parliament detailing the demographics and conditions within our federal prisons. After ten years on the job, Sapers wasn’t surprised to find that the number of Black inmates increased yet again. Since he started in 2005, he’s never seen a year where the Black population in federal prisons didn’t rise. Overall during his tenure, Sapers has watched the number of Black inmates grow by 69 per cent.
Black Canadians now represent the fastest growing group in federal prisons, and are vastly overrepresented behind bars.
While African-Canadians make up three per cent of the general population, they account for 10 per cent of the federal prison population. The recent report also indicates that while in prison, Black inmates are overrepresented in segregation, and that they are subject to nearly 15 per cent of all use-of-force incidents. In a case study released in 2014 on the Black inmate experience, the office of the correctional investigator points out that “despite being rated as a population having a lower risk to re-offend and lower need overall, Black inmates are more likely to be placed in maximum security institutions.”
“It’s disheartening, but not surprising given the heightened level of over policing that happens with respect to Black and racialized societies,” says Anthony Morgan, a Toronto-based lawyer and African-Canadian rights advocate. One culprit Morgan points to is the controversial Toronto Police custom of carding individuals—stopping and questioning them without cause, and recording the incident–which disproportionately targets Black people. In fact, while eight per cent of Torontonians are Black, they’re targeted in 27 per cent of all carding incidents, according to 2013 records.
To help stymie the problem, Morgan suggests redistributing some of what he calls the “exorbitant amounts of resources we put into policing [Black and racialized] communities.” The Toronto Police budget for 2016 is $1 billion, but Morgan says some of that money could be better spent on services that foster stronger communities, like investing in more accessible transit, affordable childcare and housing, and education and job training opportunities for young people. All of these initiatives would benefit low-income communities, which are disproportionately Black or racialized. “If you look at it in the full scope of those things, it’s not surprising we have so many African-Canadians in jail,” says Morgan. “It’s an inevitable outcome when you have social neglect as systematic as it relates to the Black community.”
Morgan says that ending the silence around Black incarceration, and discrimination in general, is a crucial step in resolving the problem–something he says the Black Lives Matter movement is making strides toward. Next, Morgan says the federal and local governments need to work with Black communities to build stronger social and community supports. And finally, he says Ottawa needs to create an African-Canadian Justice Strategy, similar to the Aboriginal Justice Strategy that was initiated in 1991 to tackle the growing Indigenous prison population. The strategy would help implement community-based initiatives, like offering restorative justice and diversion programs, and offer alternative sentencing. The African Canadian Legal Aid Clinic, where Morgan previously worked, has made submissions to the federal government and the human rights commission to support their call for an African-Canadian Justice Strategy. “So far,” he says, “we haven’t had any indication that that’s going to happen.”