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Black inmates face second-class status in Canadian prisons, ombudsman warns

The number of black inmates in Canadian federal prisons has jumped 80 per cent.

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Blacks make up nearly one in 10 of the 15,000 inmates in Canada's federal prisons, where they have a second-class status, according to a report from Howard Sapers, ombudsman for federal inmates.

Black inmates are more likely than the general inmate population to do time in maximum security and solitary confinement, the report, released Tuesday, said. They are also more likely to face the use of force from guards. And they are less likely to hold prison jobs – their prison unemployment rate is 7 per cent, while the rate for all prisoners is just 1.5 per cent. They are also less likely to be released on parole.

Mr. Sapers, who was sharply critical of the Conservative government's tough-on-crime agenda in a speech on Sunday, said he could not draw a straight line between specific crime laws, such as the creation of new mandatory minimum sentences, and the growing black inmate population.

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But, he said, "many of those policies, taken together, have had a cumulative impact … on the number of aboriginal Canadians and visible minority Canadians behind bars." As for why blacks fare worse behind bars than other inmates, Mr. Sapers commented, "If you suspect that an identifiable group is more involved in gang activity, and if your decisions result in a group being held more often in segregation – that group is going to have less opportunity to participate in programs and employment."

Mr. Sapers's annual report to Parliament includes a special section on black inmates, but also found that aboriginal inmates make up 22 per cent of the prison population. "You cannot reasonably claim to have a just society with incarceration rates like these," he said of aboriginal-inmate numbers, in his speech Sunday at a Toronto church.

Blacks account for 2.9 per cent of Canada's population, and their federal prison numbers have jumped 80 per cent in a decade. Explanations for the rising numbers range from a lack of fathers to systemic racism – class-action lawsuits have been filed in Toronto and nearby Peel Region over alleged racial profiling by police – to poverty and unemployment.

"It goes back to economics and circumstances," said Lanre Onigbinde-Dey, 35, of Toronto, who spent eight years in federal prison for manslaughter after killing a man in a knife fight when he was 24.

"Have you seen the movie Trading Places? If I were to switch places with someone of privilege, I highly doubt I would have ended up in prison."

He said that as a young man, he did not know how to overcome the obstacles to succeeding in life. "It comes of not having the leadership you need at home – male role models. The ones we looked to weren't that much older than us. It was like the blind leading the blind. I wasn't born with a manual. I was in a group home when I was 12."

He said that a big problem in federal prison is "there's a disconnect between the guards and the [black] inmates."

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Public Safety Minister Steven Blaney said he believes Correctional Service Canada treats everyone in a fair way. "The only minority I would say we're seriously interested in are the criminals."

The report found that blacks tend to have lower rates of reoffending than the general prison population when they are released on parole. One reason, Mr. Sapers said, may be that black inmates are less likely than others to be sex offenders, who have a tough time reintegrating.

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