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A Native Perspective on Corrections

Ivan Morin

The last ten years have seen an increase in the recognition of the needs of Native offenders by the Correctional Service of Canada, and an honest effort to fulfil those needs with the implementation of more native oriented programs. One of the major reasons for this increase in programs for Native offenders was the involvement in the program planning for Natives in institutions by organizations such as the Native Clan in Manitoba, Native Counselling Services in Alberta, Allied Indian and Metis Society in B.C., and a number of other Native organizations from the community.

One of the largest factors in the improvement of conditions for Native people in prison is the implementation and continuing improvement of the Native Spiritual Programs. As a Native inmate I see the positive nature of the improvements in the Spiritual Program and what it does for us as prisoners. First and foremost, it gives those us who do not know what the meaning of Native Spirituality is, an opportunity to be taught by Elders about the meaning of Sweetgrass, the Sweatlodge, the role of Elders in the community, and a host of other factors of Spirituality.

Another important thing that the Spiritual program does for some of us, is it gives a real sense of identification, self-esteem, and helps us come to terms with our Nativeness, which some of us weren't totally comfortable with. This not being comfortable with our Nativeness can generally be attributed to not having enough of an understanding of the Native culture, and in particular the Spiritual aspects of it. A majority of the Elders I have come in contact with, in the various penitentiaries and correctional centres, have unequivocally stated that if you can build a man spiritually you can increase his self-worth, his ability to communicate, to understand, to reach out for help and to be at peace with himself.

Elders are not only helping the Native inmates, but they have also been in helping the prison administrators and guards through cross-cultural training at a number of institutions and prison staff colleges. This has helped in breaking down some of the barriers between the Native prisoners and guards.

When the Native Spiritual program was first introduced into institutions a number of the guards and administrators mocked the traditional way of the Elders and their perceived "religious" beliefs. Through cross-cultural training most, realize that it is a very important part of our growth as Native people. This has improved the status of the Elders in the "Chaplaincy" programs at the various institutions to a point where a lot of the Elders are recognized as "official" chaplains, something that was totally foreign only ten years ago.

Although this has been a very good program there is still a long way to go before we can say that we are satisfied with the Native Spiritual program in the system refuses to recognize the importancE of having an Elder available to the institutions full time, like you would have a Roman Catholic priest Elders still work on a contractual basis and are quite often underpaid, or not given the proper respect that should be rightfully afforded to an Elder.

Another equally important facet which improves the lot of the Native offenders is the Native Brotherhood groups, which are self-help groups for Natives in institutions. The Native Brotherhood is well organized in a number of institutions, but not always welcomed. Administrators and guards often label the Brotherhoods as a vehicle for potential racism. It has been my experience that the majority of Brotherhoods do not perpetuate racism, but help in promoting a mutual understanding in institutions between Native and Non-native inmates.

At Edmonton Maximum Security Institution, the Brotherhood has been instrumental in coordinating and servicing a number of programs that have been helpful to the Native inmates. Programs such as life skills, peer group counselling and traditional Native ceremonies such as, Pow-wows, Sweetgrass, Sweatlodges, and Spiritual family days have been facilitated by the Native Brotherhood in Edmonton Max. This participation in the delivery of programs has led to an increased number of Native inmates involving themselves in not only the programs that are set-up by the Native Brotherhood, but also in the overall programming in the institution. The Brotherhood also involved itself in the everyday programming of the institution and generally has a member on the inmate committee.

More often than not, Executive members of the Native Brotherhood are locked up by the administrators, under a section of the Commissioners Directives (the law that governs federal institutions), which states they are being locked up for the "good order of the institution." Generally this happens when the Brotherhood is running well and has made some gains in rights which they are constantly struggling to get recognized. If I could name all the Brothers who were locked up trying to get the institutions to recognize our right to our own religion and culture in the nineteen - seventies and early eighties I would not have enough room in this whole paper. This kind of lock up is still happening today and has not been brought to light by those organizations whom are supposed to be protecting the Native interest in prisons.

A good reason for this is that organizations such as Native Counselling Services of Alberta (NCSA), are often intimidated by the guards and administrators in federal institutions. The Correctional Service of Canada have not taken as full partners organizations such as NCSA, and allowed them to constructively deal with those issues which affect Native people in federal institutions.

Another problem with this is quite often organizations such as NCSA are seen as co-conspirators of the Correctional Services when they fail to act as advocates for the Native inmates', but it is not totally unfounded at times. I have seen where a Native organization has looked the other way when Native inmates have been unfairly locked up, and at times have encouraged the authorities to lock-up Native inmates who have went against some of their program ideas.

This is not to say that organizations such as NCSA have no place in the Correctional system, because they do. There should also be a mechanism in place that would make them not only accountable to the prison authorities, but also to the community they serve. A board should be set-up of members from the community, the institutional Brotherhoods, or an ad-hoc group representing the Native Brotherhood from the community, and a member each from the institution and the Native liaison group. A Board of this nature would not only act as an overseer of programs for Native offenders, but would also act as an advisory council for the Correctional Service of Canada to ensure that the Native needs are being met in institutions.

A point which has been harped on quite often in recent years has been the implementation of an Affirmation Action Program for the Correctional Service of Canada. Although this would be a valuable program I do not think that it will alleviate any of the perceived problems, because of the fact that inmates and non-native guards would I see a Native employee as being somewhat of a traitor. Something like the old adage that says, "Either you are with us or against us." I would like to see the implementation of a program such as this because, Native Correctional workers would help to bridge a certain amount of understanding in institutions. Programming for Native inmates has increased over the years and there is more participation by Native inmates in institutional programming, but we still have a ways to go before we can be satisfied that Natives are being treated equally in institutions, or are having their needs properly addressed. Hope is in the future if one is to believe the recent paper published by the Correctional Law Review entitled, "Correctional Issues Affecting Native Peoples." A number of recommendations are being considered to increase and improve Native programming in institutions.

Even the possibility of allowing Native people an opportunity to administer their "Correctional System" based on traditional values. Although the idea is novel, I think that the work has to be done before we get into prisons, as opposed to doing something to improve the conditions in prisons. Expectations would be too high in an institution such as this and [...] success of such an institution would be unlikely because of the lack of expertise that Native people hold in the correctional field.

I believe what we have to do is increase Native awareness in existing institutions and get the Native inmates more involved in the delivery of programs such as the educational, trades training, and social skills programs. With involvement in these programs I think Native inmates would be more willing to enter into them because there would be a Native involved in the delivery of the program.

Once parity has been achieved and distinct goals set with respect to the delivery and implementation of programs for Native offenders, only then will we see the revolving door syndrome for Native people reach a point where we [...] be able to arrest it. At this point we may also see the Native offender become more involved in the improvement of the prison environment as a whole and walk out with the confidence needed to succeed in society on the first attempt rather than being a recidivist statistic [...] years on end.