Aboriginal Canadians are disproportionately represented in the prison system, and despite two decades of efforts to address their high incarceration rates, the correctional services watchdog says the disparities are getting worse.

In his report issued Thursday, Correctional Investigator of Canada Howard Sapers says measures taken by the federal correctional system in the last 20 years are not only failing to improve the situation, they are perpetuating "conditions of disadvantage."

Key figures highlighted in the report:

o Approximately 3,400 First Nation, Metis or Inuit prisoners account for more than 20 per cent of the present federal Canadian prison population, despite Aboriginal Canadians accounting for just 4 per cent of the general population

o Aboriginal women comprised approximately 32 per cent of all female federal prisoners in 2010-11, up more than 85 per cent in ten years

o Based on the current demographic trend, in which Canada's Aboriginal population is experiencing a "baby boom," Sapers' report predicts the rise in the number of Aboriginal prisoners will continue to outpace the general population.

"Close to one-in-four inmates in federal penitentiaries today are of Aboriginal ancestry, yet Aboriginal-specific legislative provisions are chronically under-funded, under-utilized and unevenly applied by the Correctional Service," Sapers said in a statement.

Sapers' report, "Spirit Matters: Aboriginal People and the Corrections and Conditional Release Act," focused on two specific sections of the Corrections and Conditional Release Act (CCRA).

The first, Section 81, sets the rules for transferring an Aboriginal offender from federal custody to an Aboriginal community facility. The second, Section 84, grants those communities a role in the release of Aboriginal offenders.

In his report, Sapers notes that just four agreements have been struck under the terms of Section 81, amounting to a total of 68 beds in four locations countrywide. And no new facilities have been added since 2001, despite a 40-per-cent increase in the population of Aboriginals incarcerated.

That means, according to Sapers' report, the existing facilities can only accommodate two per cent of federally sentenced Aboriginal offenders.

And those prisoners aren't getting the same funding as their counterparts in federal penitentiaries, Sapers said, pointing out that community-run Healing Lodges are getting about 60 cents for every dollar spent on those run by Corrections Canada.

In addition, Correctional Services employs 19,000 people, yet only 12 are assigned to work with aboriginal communities.

“On every measure aboriginal offenders fare worse that non-aboriginal,” Sapers told CTV’s Power Play on Thursday. “It’s a remarkable difference, and it’s a sustained difference; it’s been over many years now.”

He added that the Supreme Court has in the past “enunciated some principles that should guide sentencing of aboriginal Canadians, recognizing their social history. Not to give them special treatment, but just recognizing that there are some differences.”

In the House of Commons on Thursday, Prime Minister Stephen Harper did not mention the report but said, “Unfortunately the reality is aboriginals are more often the victims of violent crimes then other Canadians.”

NDP Leader Tom Mulcair, responding to the comment, said, “It's one of the most disappointing things I’ve ever heard from Stephen Harper. It's as if he's saying some people are just born to be in prison.”

Sapers concludes his report with a series of recommendations including:

o establishing an Aboriginal Corrections watchdog to coordinate efforts by the various stakeholders

o a renewed, well-funded, long-term strategy to increase the capacity of community-run Healing lodges

o reducing the red tape that now bogs down the pace of Section 84 releases

o improved training about Aboriginal culture, traditions and spirituality for federal Correctional Services staff

Healing lodges are “culturally appropriate” places for offenders to serve their sentences, Sapers said.

Speaking to Power Play Thursday, Alexis First Nation Chief Cameron Alexis said the report was not surprising to First Nations chiefs, suggesting that discrimination is “alive and well” in the judicial system.

“It’s sad to see that in this day and age…the absolute responsibilities have not been met,” he said.

According to Christa Big Canoe, the legal director for the Toronto Aboriginal Legal Services, “even in 2003, the over-representation of aboriginal people in custody was high."

As the pattern has persisted for so many years, it has sent Aboriginal communities into a "downward spiral,” she added.

Corrections Canada is failing to live up to its obligation to provide aboriginal prisoners with "culturally appropriate programming," she said, pointing to prison overcrowding and understaffing as key factors.

"When you have overcrowding and understaffing, it results in less programming."