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Call for transparency in Alberta correctional system

Thursday, August 13, 2020 @ 1:20 PM | By Heidi J. T. Exner


Heidi J.T. Exner %>
Heidi J.T. Exner
This article was originally intended to be a follow-up to a piece I penned in June of this year, about the manner in which COVID-19 has amplified access to justice issues for Alberta’s in-custody population. The previous article examined particular cases in which the messaging behind Alberta’s efforts to avert potential spread among this population suggests inconsistent priorities among provincial courts and the Queen’s Bench.

The result amounted to compounded hardships for Alberta’s imprisoned population — accused  and sentenced alike. Recent social movements warranted a look at the manner in which Alberta’s Black, Indigenous and People of Colour (BIPoC) population is disproportionately at risk to the effects of COVID-19, due to over-representation in correctional facilities. This was the envisioned follow-up topic of this article.

Alberta has recognized the shortcomings of its correctional facilities and addressed the issue of potential spread among the in-custody population in a manner that suggests inconsistent messaging. Further, any degree of success these measures have seen have failed to address the impact of spread to our over-represented marginalized BIPoC persons who remain in the system. Current social justice movements have brought prison reform into the spotlight, as calls for “defunding the police” across the nation have also suggested provincial and federal governments should both make reform an immediate priority.

Advances through the #BlackLivesMatter movement have shone a light on systemic racism in the U.S. In Canada, we have also begun to gain collective awareness that we are not immune to these same systemic issues. There are hard truths to Canada’s notions of national identity, and ongoing systemic racism is evinced most alarmingly by even a quick look at statistics of our in-custody population. Federal statistics indicate that throughout Canada, Black Canadians and Indigenous peoples are over-represented in our federal prisons. For example, 7.3 per cent of those incarcerated in federal prisons are Black, which is more than double the proportion of Black individuals within Canada’s general population. The Indigenous community is even more over-represented in Canadian correctional institutions, at approximately six times the amount of their representation in the general community. However, federal statistics do not provide a fulsome image. Federal institutions only hold about three per cent of our nation’s in-custody population. Absent a breakdown by province, one therefore could infer that this data does not account for approximately 97 per cent of Alberta’s incarcerated persons.

Alberta is the fourth most populous province or territory in Canada, yet its in-custody population in provincial and territorial institutions ranks the third highest in the nation (17.6 per cent of Canada’s in-custody population in provincial or territorial facilities are in Alberta). Alberta also has the highest proportion of its incarcerated population in remand, vs. sentenced custody, in Canada (70 per cent). Albertans — in general terms — are over-represented in the criminal justice system, relative to the rest of Canada.

When I set out to determine the demographic breakdown of those who are held in custody in Alberta’s criminal justice system, I found that provincial data is simply not available. The only data relating to race that is available for provincial facilities is a flat breakdown of “Indigenous” and “non-Indigenous” persons. Black, Latin, Asian, white and all others are simply lumped into the “non-Indigenous” category. My experience attempting to retrieve this data directly from its source was disheartening. Various departments within Alberta’s Correctional Services Division and the Ministry of Justice and Solicitor General shuffled my inquiry for more than three weeks, until I was informed by a representative of the Alberta Solicitor General that it was not prepared to provide this information. When asked for clarification regarding whether this was because they do not collect this data, or if it was not authorized to provide it, a representative made it clear to me that my further questioning was not welcome.

One of the biggest negative impacts cited when an organization lacks transparency is that this results in a lack of trust, both within the organization and among the public. To Alberta’s criminal justice system, trust is a critical starting point for better understanding of where we can make improvements. BIPoC persons are undeniably oppressed by this very system, which purports to protect each of us equally, because their over-representation within the criminal justice system serves to perpetuate their marginalization.

Out of my quest for data, the realization emerged that over-representation of BIPoC communities in Alberta’s criminal justice system was not merely the basis for a conversation about the effects of COVID-19 on these persons. It encompasses much more. Without the ability to fully examine data that speaks to the extent of this over-representation in Alberta, our conversations about reform within the criminal justice system are stunted. With our current social movements, the most reasonable starting point for productive discourse around calls to “defund the police” and prison reform seems to be access to this basic data, among other vital information.

If Alberta’s Correctional Services and Ministry of Justice and Solicitor General intend to address systemic racism adequately, there is no doubt that we need to begin with more transparency.

Heidi J. T. Exner is a MBA/JD candidate at the University of Calgary. She is a published academic, freelance journalist, editor of the Moot Times, and she sits on the board of Calgary Legal Guidance. She can reached on LinkedIn, or follow her on Twitter: @theheidikins.

Photo credit / Muralinath ISTOCKPHOTO.COM

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