The growth in Canada’s prison population is fuelled by a boom in inmates who are visible minorities, Canada’s Correctional Investigator says, and the prison system must do more to adapt its programs to better serve changing demographics.

In his annual report to Parliament, tabled Tuesday, Correctional Investigator Howard Sapers says that over the past 10 years, the aboriginal inmate population increased by 46.4 per cent, while other visible minority groups increased by nearly 75 per cent. In contrast, the Caucasian inmate population declined by 3 per cent over the same period.

"Recent inmate population growth is almost exclusively driven by an increasing number of aboriginal and visible minority groups behind bars," Sapers told reporters.

"Today, four in 10 of the federal inmate population is comprised of non-Caucasian offenders."

In his report, Sapers notes that nearly one-in-four visible minority inmates were born in another country, practice a religion other than Christianity, and speak languages other than English or French.

“Accommodating ethnic, cultural, language and religious diversity and facilitating meaningful participation in correctional programs and community reintegration for these offenders poses significant challenges for the Correctional Service of Canada,” Sapers said in a statement.

Sapers notes that while the growing diversity in the prison population reflects “larger demographic trends in Canadian society,” there are some groups that are disproportionately represented in the prison population, including:

  • 9.5 per cent of federal inmates are black (up 80 per cent since 2003-04), although that group accounts for less than 3 per cent of the general population;
  • 23 per cent of federal inmates are aboriginal, but account for 4.3 per cent of the general population;

“These are disturbing trends that raise important questions about equality and our justice system in Canada,” Sapers said in a statement.    

Sapers found that black inmates in particular face discrimination from prison staff. A case study included with the report found that black inmates are more likely to be in maximum security and segregation, face a disproportionate number of institutional charges, and are more likely to be involved in use-of-force incidents.

He does note, however, that visible minority inmates often have better post-prison outcomes compared to the general prison population.

Over the past seven years, fewer than 5 per cent of visible minority inmates were readmitted within two years of their warrant expiry date, compared to 10 per cent for the general prison population.

But in the end, he says, because visible minority inmates still face challenges, Correctional Service Canada “needs to do a better job of recruiting and retaining a more diverse front-line and program delivery staff, especially in institutions which house the greatest proportion of visible minority offenders.”

Sapers also recommends that CSC develop a national Diversity Awareness Training Plan for all staff, as well as establish an Ethnicity Liaison Officer, whose job it would be to build relationships with ethnic and cultural community groups and organizations.

After Sapers presented his findings, Public Safety Minister Steven Blaney suggested the government would not be following up on the recommendations.

"The only minority I would say we are interested in are the criminals," Blaney said.

"Correctional services has launched many initiatives throughout the years to reach out to communities and I believe that we are taking care of all inmates in a fair and proper manner."