April 25, 2013 5:46 pm
Updated: April 25, 2013 5:52 pm

Prison watchdog accuses government of dragging heels on aboriginal report

Canada’s prison watchdog says the government waited so long to respond to his scathing report about aboriginal inmates that he decided to release it with a level of urgency seen only once before, according to internal correspondence.

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Global News

And when the Correctional Service of Canada finally got back to Correctional Investigator Howard Sapers about his special report that found nearly one in four aboriginals in Canada are now imprisoned, the government’s response appeared “to have been lifted from existing corporate documents,” Sapers wrote in a letter to CSC Commissioner Don Head on March 8.

“Bureaucratic in tone and superficial in content, CSC’s response lacks substance, meaning and clarity,” Sapers wrote.

The report found that aboriginals are grossly over-represented in the prison system at 23 per cent of inmates, while making up only four per cent of the population. It also cited a failure by the prison system to implement laws that allow aboriginal inmates to be held in healing lodges and to establish a larger role for their communities in rehabilitation.

In its official response, CSC brushed off a majority of the recommendations, including the creation of deputy commissioner.

But CSC also said it “is dedicated to continuing to address the needs of aboriginal offenders in the federal correctional system and to ensuring that they can work towards rehabilitation in an inclusive and culturally sensitive environment.”

For Sapers, it isn’t enough.

“They continue to think that the status quo is adequate. And it isn’t,” he said.

Now, Sapers says he has taken his concerns this week to Public Safety Minister Vic Toews about why it took so long to get a response from CSC, and why it was, in Sapers’ words, “disappointing and dismissive.”

“I do not think it was well managed by the Correctional Service of Canada and I am disappointed with the response,” Sapers said in an interview.

The CSC is not required to formally respond to the Office of the Correctional Investigator’s recommendations before a report is tabled in Parliament.

But Sapers said it’s considered “best practice” for the report and the recommendations to be released at the same time.

“I think what the public loses out is the ability to read the report and the response at same time and get a sense of whether or not the response truly addresses the issues that were raised,” he said.

But the government has a different view, because submitting reports is purely the choice of the correctional investigator.

“CSC has provided a fulsome response, supported by the evidence, to the report of the OCI (Office of the Correctional Investigator),” Toews’ spokeswoman Julie Carmichael wrote in an email.

Sapers’ report called “Spirit Matters” was tabled in Parliament on March 7, nearly five months after Sapers had first asked for a formal response from CSC, according to correspondence released under Access to Information.

The correspondence shows that in October, Sapers asked CSC for a response to his ten recommendations by Nov. 12, 2012.

But by January, Sapers had not heard from Head beyond a fact check of the report.

On January 7, Sapers wrote to Toews.

“I understand that the CSC has prepared a response for review by your office. Unfortunately, this review process has caused an unreasonable delay,” wrote Sapers. “I ask that you intervene to ensure that I receive timely responses to my recommendations.”

Toews wrote back on Jan. 30 and told Sapers he was entitled by law to submit the findings as a special report – an extremely rare measure used only one before.

A special report is decided at the discretion of the investigator when he feels the matter is urgent and cannot be delayed until the release of an annual report.

The correctional investigator’s office has only filed a special report once, in 1994, about incarcerated women. It triggered the Arbour commission and led to a revamp of the women’s prison system.

Head responded to Sapers on February 1, telling him the government will respond to the recommendations after the report has been tabled in Parliament.

He acknowledged that hasn’t always been the case.

“In recent years, reports by the Correctional Investigator have included a response by the Correctional Service of Canada prior to the report being tabled in Parliament,” wrote Head. “You may be aware of the fact that this has not always been the case, nor is there a requirement for the report and the Government of Canada response to be tabled as one package.”

On March 8, Sapers wrote to Head about the government’s response, expressing disappointment with it and the way it was delivered – via email at 7:05 pm on the day the report was tabled, with a link to the Correctional Service of Canada’s website.

“It was very strange. I’ve actually never had a circumstance arise exactly the way that that had happened,” Sapers said in an interview.

“I think the most appropriate thing to do would be to have a timely response sent through the appropriate channels, not in the evening hours with a cryptic email note.”

In a follow-up email sent on April 8, Head acknowledge Sapers’ criticism of the CSC response.

He said both Sapers and the department agree that over-representation of aboriginal people in the criminal justice system is “a complex issue that needs to be examined from a much broader perspective” than CSC’s mandate.

“The factors associated with this over-representation are multi-faceted, multi-dimensional and societal in nature,” wrote Head. “CSC is at the receiving end of the criminal justice system and, as such, has limited capacity to resolve those factors.”

Head went on to say the service continues to make significant advancements in meeting the needs of aboriginal offenders, and that the initiatives such as healing lodges should not be examined in isolation because they do not represent the greater scope of CSC’s approach to aboriginal corrections.

A CSC spokeswoman said the government fully considers all recommendations from the investigator.

“While it is the OCI’s role to identify potential improvements, CSC must manage the operational and financial challenges that come with implementing these recommendations,” wrote spokeswoman Veronique Rioux in an email.

“In addition, there may be some issues on which CSC and the OCI have differing opinions, though CSC will continue to work collaboratively with the OCI to identify appropriate responses to the concerns raised in this and other reports.”

She said CSC’s official response to the report has not changed.

© Shaw Media, 2013

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