Set my people free

There's great news for white Canadians this week. Correctional Investigator of Canada Howard Sapers released his annual report on Tuesday.

There’s great news for white Canadians this week. Correctional Investigator of Canada Howard Sapers released his annual report on Tuesday, and it reveals that despite the government’s get-tough-on-crime agenda, the prison system is locking up fewer Caucasians than it did 10 years ago.

In the past decade, while Conservative policies have swelled prison populations, the proportion of prisoners who share Justice Minister Peter Mackay’s skin tone has dropped by 13 per cent. While whites make up about 85 per cent of the general population, we represent only 61 per cent of prisoners. In absolute numbers, there are three per cent fewer white people in prison than in 2003, even though 2,100 more Canadians are incarcerated.

The numbers look even better if you’re an educated, well-paid white man in good mental health. Nearly half of today’s prisoners have accessed mental health services, and 80 per cent have substance abuse issues. The average prisoner has a Grade 8 education.

The number of women in prison has increased by 40 per cent in five years. The number of aboriginal women has increased by more than 80 per cent in 10 years. Of those incarcerated women, 85 per cent have been the victims of physical abuse and 68 per cent have been sexually assaulted.

Black people make up nine per cent of the prison population, though only three per cent of Canadians are black. For aboriginal people, the numbers are even more striking: 21 per cent of prisoners, but only 4.3 per cent of the population. As Sapers reports, “if not for these subgroups, the offender population growth rate would have flatlined some time ago.”

Sapers suggests that these figures, rather than being good news for the dominant culture, indicate a problem in the system. “Beyond rising inmate counts and costs, Canadians should be interested in who is ending up behind bars. Questions about whom we incarcerate, for how long and why are important public policy issues,” he says.

But the Conservative government has no interest in black or aboriginal people. According to Public Safety Minister Steven Blaney, “The only minority I would say we are interested in are the criminals.” Can you guess what colour Blaney is?

It’s always good to be free, but the white middle class have particular reason to celebrate their un-incarcerated state because, as Sapers outlines in his report, “To make sure that inmates are not ‘coddled’ has meant making prisons more austere, more crowded, more unsafe and ultimately less effective.” Among the growing dangers faced by prisoners he lists “increases in assaults, in use of force, in lockdowns, in gang membership, in self-harm incidents, in placement in segregation.”

While taking TVs out of prisons, reducing yard time, double-bunking inmates in single cells, cutting pay for prison work, and making inmates pay for phone calls, those fabulous money-managers in the government have managed to increase the correctional budget by 40 per cent, or $2.6 billion in five years. This is a remarkable achievement, particularly in light of the fact that crime rates had been dropping for years before the Harper government ever came to power.

Sapers says, “crowding, too much time spent in cells; lack of contact with the outside world, lack of program capacity, the paucity of meaningful prison work or vocational skills training and polarization between inmates and custodial staff” are dragging the system back 40 years, to a time of deadly prison riots. Not to worry, the purchase of pepper spray has not been affected by budget cuts.

If you are one of the unfortunate white people who does end up in prison, take heart. According to Sapers, “(Blacks and aboriginals) are over-represented in maximum security institutions and segregation placements. They are more likely to be subject to use of force interventions and incur a disproportionate number of institutional disciplinary charges. They are released later in their sentences and less likely to be granted day or full parole.”

According to Sapers, higher rates of incarceration, longer sentences, and tougher prison conditions do nothing to lower crime rates or increase public safety. In fact, they make matters worse, because they make it more difficult to rehabilitate prisoners and reintegrate them into society. But really, what does it matter? Most of the damage done is done to minority groups, and as Blaney says, who cares about them?

It’s still a great country to be white in.

Al Pope won the Canadian Community Newspaper Award for best columnist in 2013. He also won the Ma Murray Award for Best Columnist in B.C./Yukon in 2010 and 2002.

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