Canadian correctional centres are beginning to closely resemble residential schools, says a prominent prison policy expert.
“Correctional systems, for some people, are the new residential schools,” said Maggie Hodgson, citing the lack of First Nation involvement in such institutions and the overbearing Justice department policies that govern them.
Governments enforced policies in residential schools and, today, Justice departments are exerting similar power and control through state-run correctional facilities and policies, said Hodgson, a director of Native Counseling Services of Alberta and a special adviser for Indian Residential Schools Resolutions Canada.
The residential school experience was, for most people, harrowing, tragic and vicious, but some people emerged from the system without being negatively affected, said Hodgson.
However, the common experience was that everyone was taken from their families.
Separation from family and culture had a huge affect on residential school survivors, just as it is now having on aboriginal people in jail, said Hodgson at the opening night of the Healing in Corrections conference.
“Along with grief and loss comes a disconnect with identity,” she said. “Some say the residential schools are the cornerstone of that disconnect.
“But half of that cornerstone is outlawing our ceremonies. It’s where we dealt with justice, where we had a responsibility to the collective and a sense of give and take.”
More ceremonies and traditions involving community members and elders need to be incorporated into the corrections system to stop the government from repeating the same mistakes made with residential school policies, said Hodgson.
A member of the Nadleh Whuten Carrier First Nation, near Prince George, BC, Hodgson is recognized for her work on justice and healing initiatives.
The Officer of the Order of Canada has spearheaded national justice campaigns, authored several books and received the United Nations Community Development Award.
She spoke at the Yukon Inn Monday night.
The conference is part of the ongoing implementation of the Correctional Redevelopment Strategic Plan released this year.
The plan aims to reform the territory’s correctional system with the help of First Nations and non-governmental organizations.
Aboriginals are disproportionately represented in the Yukon corrections system.
Of the 565 people jailed in the Yukon in 2004, 76 per cent were aboriginal, according to Statistics Canada.
Native people make up 20 per cent of the territory’s population.
More than 80 per cent of people in NWT jails were aboriginal. The national average was 18 per cent.
The government’s strategic plan doesn’t go far enough to make corrections responsive to First Nations, said Hodgson.
If aboriginal people are involved in the planning, why are they not actually writing the policy? she asked.
“There’s a Grand Canyon there,” she said.
“The consultation process is an opportunity to look at who will be part of the designing of the policies. At the end of the day, acts are nice but policy is the meat and potatoes.”
First Nations should be heavily engaged in writing policies for the new corrections facility if they want to guarantee cultural services in the jail, she repeated several times.
Establishing that an institutional director “shall hire” elders to direct cultural services is much different than writing “may hire,” said Hodgson.
Such a change would ensure First Nation involvement, she noted.
“We have a lot of guards working in corrections, but how many elders are working in the system?
“And I don’t mean taking a white man’s program and throwing a prayer in it.”
There are elders opening and closing ceremonies — an elder open the night’s talk with a prayer — but few are integrated in a meaningful way.
Having the number of aboriginal prison employees match in proportion the number of aboriginal inmates is another policy change Hodgson suggested.
Improving access to cultural programs in prison helps rehabilitation and is essential to reducing the number of repeat offenders.
It also provides positive role models for others in First Nation communities, said Hodgson.
Between 1980 and 1992, as the addictions levels in aboriginal communities decreased, there was a 1,800-per-cent increase in aboriginals attending post-secondary education, said Hodgson.
Attending post-secondary education is the third-most-cited reason for not re-offending, she said.
But contradictions within Justice departments and correctional facilities across Canada confuse and ultimately hinder efforts to rehabilitate offenders, she added.
“Between 50 and 60 per cent of women in prisons are on some form of anti-depressants, so we pump them full of pills and when they leave we tell them no drugs and alcohol.”
Before any significant change takes place, the First Nation communities need to reevaluate themselves, she said.
Aboriginal people need to take responsibility for attitudes within the communities, and look at what is going right just as much as people now look at what is going wrong, said Hodgson.
“If we want the jail system to change its behaviour, then we have to change our behaviour in our communities,” she said.
“If we’re asking jail guards to treat our men and women fairly, then we need to treat each other fairly.”
The comprehensive consultation process that produced the strategic plan can go a long way to improve relations between a government and those often at odds with Justice policies.
“More often than not, it’s the people working in the local programs who take risks,” said Hodgson.
“Governments often look outside to people like me instead of looking at the people in front of them. It’s these people, doing the work right here, that can contribute the most.”