Canada Has a Black Incarceration Problem
There are 70 per cent more Black Canadians in federal prison than there were 10 years ago. What are we doing about it?
Last month, federal prison watchdog Howard Sapers presented his annual report in 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.”
The findings support those from a commission conducted more than 10 years prior that examined racism throughout the justice system in Ontario. It found evidence of systemic racism at every level of the system—in policing, in the courts, and in correctional institutions. Despite identifying the problem, not much was done to fix it, as seen in the soaring incarceration rates of Black Canadians.
“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.”
As Sapers points out, the disproportionate incarceration of Black Canadians is not a new phenomenon; it is, however, an overlooked one. Part of that reason, Sapers suggests, is because, while the Black prison population is growing quickly, it is not the largest identifiable incarcerated group. Indigenous Canadians account for 24.4 per cent of the federal prison population, and just 4.3 per cent of the general population. While the rate of Indigenous incarceration is slowing in relation to other populations (it grew by 50 per cent in the last 10 years compared to nearly 70 per cent for African-Canadians), it’s still a significant and pressing problem.
“Certainly, if social policy and government policy is driven by demand, then I suppose that would be why we have paid more attention to men in conflict in the law than women, and why we pay more attention to Aboriginal inmates than other identifiable groups in prison—those are the biggest numbers,” says Sapers, emphasizing that it’s no reason to neglect particular individuals if their needs aren’t being met. “I don’t think you can rank order them and say, just because there are fewer of these than there are of those that it’s not as important or the issues aren’t as significant,” he adds, “it’s just that demand does drive some degree of attention.”
According to Morgan, the silence around the issue stems from our willful denial of the situation, and our conviction that Black incarceration is a uniquely American problem—not a Canadian one. “It has a lot to do with what I’ve called Canadian racial exceptionalism,” says Morgan. “If America is having a conversation about the hyper incarceration of Black males, in order to maintain our sense of moral superiority, we can’t look into those issues as we experience them here in Canada,” he says. Morgan notes that, in reality, overrepresentation of the Black population in prisons is slightly more pronounced in Canada than in the U.S., where African-Americans account for 37 per cent of the prison population and 13 per cent of the general population.
“We’re not, as a country, ready to contest that,” Morgan continues, “because of the myths we tell ourselves about multiculturalism, and thinking that we have it all figured out. The truth of the matter is, when you look in our prison systems, if you go to our courthouses, if you go at children’s aid offices, to school detention halls, it is overwhelmingly Black kids who are being criminalized and punished. I think the generalized silence has to do with what we want to believe about ourselves as Canadians.”
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.”
Last year marked the first year of what the United Nations has dubbed the international decade for people of African descent. It’s a call to action for leaders to address the ongoing discrimination Black communities face across the world. Morgan hopes Canada will take the opportunity seriously to participate in the cause. “The international decade has a framework that the government of Canada can look to to help address some of these long-standing, decades-old problems, in particular, over incarceration,” he says. “It simply doesn’t need to be the case.”