University of Toronto Magazine University of Toronto Magazine

Prejudice in the Penitentiary

Aboriginal women unfairly deemed higher security risks, study finds

Aboriginal women are classified as higher security risks more often than other female prisoners by Correctional Service Canada (CSC) – yet they commit fewer infractions while incarcerated. “The rating system used by CSC produces a systemic bias against aboriginal women prisoners,” says Anthony Doob, a criminologist at U of T and co-author of a paper published in the Canadian Journal of Criminology and Criminal Justice. “Because of their higher classification, their lives, while in prison, are disadvantaged. Various privileges are not available to them and they are more likely to serve a greater portion of their sentence.”

CSC uses the rating scale to assess the level of supervision required for inmates in federal penitentiaries by designating them as minimum, medium or maximum security risks. U of T researchers examined the validity of the scale, which was used to classify 68 aboriginal women and 266 other female prisoners in 2003. They found that 60 per cent of aboriginal women were deemed medium security risks compared to 42 per cent of non-aboriginal women. However, out of this group, 31 per cent of aboriginal women had committed infractions, compared to 53 per cent of other female inmates.

“The goal is to classify women according to the risk they pose in the institution or outside if they were to escape,” says Doob, who conducted the research with lead author Cheryl Webster, who was a postdoctoral fellow at U of T at the time. “What Correctional Service Canada does not seem to have is a classification system that works well for women in general and for aboriginal women in particular.”

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