The NDP uncovered numbers from the Department of Justice that show African Nova Scotians and Indigenous people are over-represented in the prison system:

New numbers from the provincial Department of Justice show an over-representation of African Nova Scotian and Indigenous people in the province’s jail system, particularly for youths in custody.

The numbers showed that in 2014-2015, about 16 per cent of youth sentenced to a youth correctional facility were African Nova Scotian and 12 per cent were Indigenous.

For adults sentenced to jail, about 14 per cent were African Nova Scotian and seven per cent were Aboriginal.

For youth and adults in remand — meaning they were in jail but hadn’t been convicted — between 10 and 11 per cent were either African Nova Scotian or Aboriginal.

African Nova Scotians and Indigenous represent about two and four per cent of the population, respectively.

The disparity in Nova Scotia for Black prisoners is even more stark than the national numbers, which show that:

Black Canadians now represent the fastest growing group in federal prisons, and are vastly overrepresented behind bars.

While African-Canadians make up three per cent of the general population, they account for 10 per cent of the federal prison population. The recent report also indicates that while in prison, Black inmates are overrepresented in segregation, and that they are subject to nearly 15 per cent of all use-of-force incidents. In a case study released in 2014 on the Black inmate experience, the office of the correctional investigator points out that “despite being rated as a population having a lower risk to re-offend and lower need overall, Black inmates are more likely to be placed in maximum security institutions.”

I was contacted today for two different interviews, where I made the same points I’ve made extensively in my writing in the Examiner. I spoke about how these numbers aren’t surprising, and only confirm what Black and Indigenous families and communities have been saying. I questioned how, if these numbers were at all a surprising, what does that tell us about the blindness to racism that exists in Canada. I pointed out that we are at once consistently stereotyped as criminals and thugs, but yet, the “news” that we are over-incarcerated is supposed to be shocking.

Image of Burnside jail from The Coast.
Image of Burnside jail from The Coast.

I pointed out that just looking at the number of incarcerated people doesn’t begin to address or describe the scope of what Black and Indigenous people face in society — and that both groups face discrimination at all levels of the justice system from policing and profiling to lack of access to bail, to harsher sentencing, to being classified higher risk in prison and being placed in higher security facilities, to being segregated or receiving institutional charges, to parole and reintegration into communities.

Beyond the prison system, education, housing, employment, and other inequalities all contribute to poverty, and lead to the high rates of incarceration.

When people get out of prison, stigma about “criminals” and criminal records creates further problems in getting employment. The trauma experienced in prison has a huge effect on relationships — if those relationships have survived the prison sentence. Without options when they leave prison, it’s hard not to go back.

Incarceration doesn’t only affect the people in prison, it affects entire families and communities. The saying goes, when you go to jail, your whole family goes with you. While Black and Indigenous women represent the fastest-growing population of prisoners, women in these communities are also affected deeply by incarceration and its impact on families. The shortage of affordable housing in Nova Scotia and the lack of safe homes for women absolutely contributes to the incarceration of people forced to grow up in more violent areas and unable to make decisions about moving if their children become involved in criminal activity.

If a woman goes to prison, her children are likely to be taken into care. If she’s lucky she has family to care for the children, but, particularly if she grew up in the foster system herself, there is a much higher chance of her children being involved in the system, which leads to a higher likelihood of their own incarceration.

As mothers, partners, parents of children, sisters, friends, etc., of incarcerated men, women end up shouldering the financial burden of supporting families alone, paying for men in prison (phone calls, canteen, television, etc.), and bearing the costs of long drives or flights to visit loved ones in prison. When incarcerated people return to their families or children, women bear the effect of this trauma and the violence suffered by men in prison. None of this is reflected in the numbers.

I spoke with Black and Indigenous prisoners to see if they thought these numbers were at all surprising and what their experience of racism in the justice system has been.

— Women —

I spoke with male prisoners to understand the prison experience for this piece. I was unable in the time available to speak with any women, but Black and Indigenous women are also highly incarcerated, and make up the fastest growing rates of incarceration.

What should be particularly alarming is that 80-90 per cent of women who are incarcerated are also victims of sexual and domestic violence. For Black and Indigenous women, there is little justice for rape or a beating, yet then women find themselves serving time, usually for non-violent crimes.

Women also have higher rates of self-harm in prison and high rates of suicide. Women are less likely to have family support and more likely to have children taken into care. The corrections system, despite calls for women-centered corrections that address the specific needs of women, continues to use tools like classification systems that are created for men and have little relevancy to the lives and experiences of women.

Collage by Mandy Kelly from "Words Without Walls." Image from The Coast.
Collage by Mandy Kelly from “Words Without Walls.” Image from The Coast.

Women who have been incarcerated are more likely to be sexually exploited. The stigma of prison time, and particularly around gendered ideas of criminality (“nice girls don’t do that”) makes women who have served time more vulnerable to abuse. Being labeled a “criminal” marks women as shameful or less feminine, which makes them targets after incarceration. Queer women are more likely to be seen as violent, and are subject to more criminalization and harsher sentencing and prison conditions as a result.

Women also bear the costs of incarceration in other ways. When people blame “how those children are raised” and attack Black or Indigenous mothers, these ideas of Black and Indigenous women being less capable or deserving of motherhood also lead to children being seized by Child and Family Services.

Stigma against single mothers and racialized mothers is also part of gendered violence against women. As the mothers and partners of prisoners, women are also hugely affected by the prison system, and provide most of the emotional and financial support for imprisoned loved ones. Black and Indigenous women become the “mule” of the prison system, without whose love and labour the system could not survive. Visits, for example, are known to be an incentive to good behaviour — institutions thus depend on women visiting to keep prisoners calmer and happier. TVs and clothing and everything else sent in, usually by women, keeps prisoners occupied and less likely to cause trouble. Without women’s support, the system would not work at all.

— Systemic Racism and the Generational Legacy —

When I showed Anthony Morgan, formerly of the African Canadian Legal Clinic and a human rights lawyer, the numbers in Nova Scotia he responded:

There’s no surprise for Black folks who know this is part of a tradition of systemic anti-Black racism from policing to prisons.

There is systemic anti-Black racism that privileges and values Black bodies as prisoners more than contributing tax payers. I call it anti-Black profiteering.

Black bodies are seen as more profitable behind bars than as free beings. It’s slavery’s afterlife. Instead of white/mainstream society working to exorcise its anti-Black racist undercurrents and overcurrents, it feels more comfortable excising Black people from society.

The visibly free Black body conjures feelings of fear and insecurity. This fear and insecurity is based in hundreds of years of ingesting prejudices, stereotypes, biases and attitudes about Black people that are rooted in slavery and colonization.

Instead of searching the self to unpack that, it’s easier to roll with those thoughts and make Black people the problem. Our physical bodies remind them about something sinister about themselves and their society.

So they have to hide us. We, our bodies, are evidence of an extreme injustice that has never been acknowledged or rectified. So they hide the evidence, bury us in prison, in child protection systems, and erase us from all their standard data collection practices and policies.

They don’t want to know or remember or be held accountable for what they have done to us or what our presence here means about them and their society.

Just as the prison system for Black people is described as “The New Jim Crow,” a recent Maclean’s article called the prison system as it affects Indigenous people Canada’s new residential schools.

Image from The Canadian Press.
Image from The Canadian Press.

While reports focus on Black or Indigenous crime or imprisonment, the violence committed daily against Black and Indigenous people is normal and invisible. As Ajamu Nangwaya observes:

People tend to be tolerant of the structural violence of poverty, homelessness and inadequate housing, lack of access to healthcare, limited access to education, unsafe workplace, the pollution of land, air and water, and unemployment and underemployment that can contribute to the premature death or a compromised quality of life for oppressed. When people are not able to meet their basic needs in a world with the available resources, they are experiencing structural violence.

The effects of intergenerational trauma, from residential schools or from the destruction of Africville, or from generations of racism and state violence play out generation after generation in family violence, addiction, in untreated and unresolved mental trauma, and in the geographies of racism that place Black and Indigenous people onto reserves or “ghetto” communities which are then underserviced and over-policed.

Suicides in Attawapiskat and incarceration of Indigenous youth are not separate issues, it is the same pain and crisis. I have rarely spoken to a man in prison who hasn’t been the victim of terrible violence, and the lack of attention to the violence committed upon young boys and men I am convinced shows up in the justice system as men internalize violence, act out pain, and absorb ideas of what it means to be a man.

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Image from

Black men in particular are expected to embody masculinity — the same masculinity that then gets them accused of being more criminal and violent — so how can men and boys report assault or molestation when they are supposed to be a man?

The tradition of lynching, which imagines Black men as sexual predators who will rape white women unless they are contained and controlled, still shapes our image of Black men and denies them humanity. At the same time as they were lynching Black men for supposed predations on white women, white men were raping Black women, who were imagined as erotic beasts who were not feminine and didn’t have the same feelings and white women, and who were therefore “unrapeable.” The “legend” of Pocahontas — in reality a young girl raped  and kidnapped — shows the same myths about Indigenous women and the same sexual exploitation that is at the foundations of North American society. Black and Indigenous women face rates of domestic assault, death from domestic violence, and sexual assault at rates higher than the rest of the population. Rarely is this violence reported or charged.

Many parents have reported begging for help and being told that nobody can do anything until their child commits a crime. Black and Indigenous pain remains unseen — in old stereotypes of the “stoic” Indian, or the angry Black woman, or the Black man as gangster — and so suffering is transformed in the white imagination into threat. These images then play in the minds of juries who then use “evidence” of the supposed unrepentant demeanour of defendants to decide guilt.

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Image from

I asked a prisoner of Indigenous and Black background to describe the experiences he has encountered in his time in prison:

Native people right from birth, there’s fetal alcohol syndrome, there’s addiction. I go to the [Indigenous] sharings and I hear the stories from guys in here. They grow up and there’s parties in the house, and all their uncles are there drinking, so they grow up and start finishing off the bottles when they’re eight, nine years old. The uncles are passing them bottles, be a man. There’s a game they play: take a shot, get a shot. Either you drink or you get punched in the stomach.

For some of us prison is a blessing in disguise compared to where most of us land – like those girls on the highway of tears who were just trying to get somewhere and someone kills them. It’s the same shit in jail. There’s predators everywhere.

Anthony Morgan points out that society would rather spend money to imprison Black people than help us, suggesting:

Track patterns in provincial spending on policing and corrections, and parallel it with spending on social services that have a direct impact on the lives of African Nova Scotians. 

There’s a trend of anti-Black racism in budget allocations.

When I asked a Black prisoner if the numbers surprised him at all, he said simply:

No. Nothing surprises me.

— Youth Crime —

One former prisoner described to me how as a child he was living on the streets at a young age, crashing in friends’ houses, and desperately committing petty crimes to feed himself. When he went to Waterville, the youth facility, he had a bed, meals every day, there was a gym, he could actually go to school, so for him the conditions in detention were a relief after his life on the outside. He told me that he then figured that jail wasn’t so bad, so he wasn’t scared of being incarcerated. This led to him being arrested and incarcerated as an adult. As an adult, of course, prison was much harsher.

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The youth numbers are the most alarming because when children become involved in the system at a young age, they are far more likely to end up incarcerated as adults.

Many who have served youth time will refer to it as a “vacation” or similar descriptions of the “softness” of youth time. This shouldn’t be understood as validating the idea that youth only get a slap on the wrist and get coddled in the system. Rather, it speaks to how involvement in the system institutionalizes people from a young age. That young people can describe jail as “soft” speaks to the conditions many are living in that send them to jail.

And once youth become institutionalized, they absorb the mindsets and beliefs they need to survive. Prisoners will tell you about “jail politics,” the hierarchies of crime and behaviour that structure life behind bars. “Solid” crimes like murder or weapons are “better” than crimes against women. Sex offenders and child molesters are the lowest of the low. Doing “serious” time is more respected than doing time in the “bucket” — i.e. provincial jail. General Population guys are solid, while Protected Custody guys are assumed to be rats or sex offenders. Knowing how to do your time is important. And so on. When youth are involved in the system, these values  of survival in the prison system influence their thinking at incredibly impressionable ages.

The numbers given for youth incarceration are not broken down by gender, but national numbers of adult incarceration point to fast-growing rates of imprisonment for African Canadian and Indigenous women. It is logical to presume that youth numbers would also reflect similar trends.

Young girls who end up in the system, whether in Waterville or in group homes or other institutions, are incredibly vulnerable to sexual exploitation. Reports from the Coloured Home recount girls being pimped out of the institution — similar reports come from girls housed in group homes and other facilities, where they are often placed after involvement in the justice system. There are no separate facilities for girls in the justice system. While there has been a recognition that federally sentenced women require woman-centered corrections policies, girls who end up incarcerated as youth are within facilities that are overwhelmingly male. In adult facilities such as Central Nova Scotia Correctional Facility, we know this practice of incarcerating a smaller population of women in a shared-but-separate facility leads to the women having less access to programs and facilities. Young girls in the system who are incredibly high-need are receiving services in environments not designed to protect and help them.

One prisoner currently serving a 40+ year sentence told me, when I asked if he had served any time as a youth, “not much, maybe eight months.” I asked if he had finished school before prison:

No, I didn’t finish school. I got caught up. I can’t blame that on racism because education is there for everyone, but I had other things on my mind. I became a father at a young age so my mind was driving me to provide for my family. Plus I had a gambling problem at that age (15), so school was not a priority.

You get caught up in the fast money. You see the nice things other people have, the materialistic things. We get caught up in the fast lane.

Another prisoner of African Nova Scotian and Indigenous background serving a life sentence when I asked if he was surprised by the numbers said:

Not at all. Because a lot of natives, we grow up around substance abuse. There’s a lot of molestation. And Black people grow up in the inner city, which is a concentrated area in Halifax, so I’m surprised it’s not more…

When I asked why he thought people got “caught up” as youth:

We’re exposed to the elements. People grow up around battery, domestic violence, fights at school, the lure of the fast life. People don’t even want cars now, they want guns. There’s kids leaving guns on the buses. I saw that on the news. We’re up here shaking our heads at that…

…It’s just, everybody gets in that path and it spirals out of control. And this is the end result.

I asked him about his own experiences as a youth:

I fell into that loop. I spiralled out of control. I was running kilos of cocaine at 14 years old. I learned how to cut keys at 15. I was getting paid five thousand to cut keys. At 15, I’m impressionable. I’m sitting there watching my mentors and they’re telling me, go ahead take a bump. I’d take a hit and my face would be numb all day and they’d be rolling around laughing. It all spiralled out of control.

A couple of [Indigenous] friends, there’d be big parties at their house. All they’d have to eat is boxes of Captain Crunch. They’d be in the house, and their uncles would be like wanna play a real man’s game. Giving them shots and making them do 10 shots, and they’d be sitting there laughing. So after a while these kids start drinking, start drinking Lysol, anything with alcohol in it.

Guys here talk about shit like, they’d be getting drunk as a kid and wake up in a pool of piss, with throw up all over them. And they’d look at their buddy, we had a good party right,  but can’t even remember anything that happened.

People are products of their environment. Sometimes it’s what they pick up from their elders. Sometimes their friends. Sometimes it’s what they already know.

Most troubling about the youth numbers is that it points to Black and Indigenous children being seen as lost causes, or being viewed as unsalvageable and less deserving of chances. Imprisoning youth rather than giving them the help and supports they need shows a society completely indifferent to our humanity.

— School to Prison Pipeline —

Recent numbers show how badly the school system is failing African Nova Scotian students and the seeming indifference to these numbers — if seven out of 10 blue-eyed children were somehow unsuccessful in school, it’s hard to imagine people would just shrug and assume that’s okay or normal or expected. That this report comes at the same time meetings are addressing school closings in our communities should demonstrate that there’s a clear line between lack of educational opportunity and the presence of our children in the youth justice system.

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Image from

One of the biggest predictors of future incarceration, next to having been formerly incarcerated or having a parent who was incarcerated, is literacy levels. When Black and Indigenous children are being failed by the education system, they are in effect being condemned to future incarceration.

Lack of literacy not only places people into the system, it makes it much harder for people to navigate it once they are there. If you can’t read, how can you effectively participate in or understand your own defence? How can you report abuse in the system, such as being able to file a habeas corpus application to protest solitary confinement? How do you fill out even basic forms about visiting or phone cards? If you get a letter telling you to appear in court on a particular date, but you can’t read it and end up with a breach? People who can’t read are placed in an incredibly dangerous situation not only because they are disadvantaged in the system, but because if they have to ask for favours to get others to read or fill in forms, they become vulnerable to exploitation by other prisoners.

Reports show that teachers, for example, consistently read Black children as older, leading to harsher disciplinary consequences (a seven-year-old is imagined as a teenager, for example, and so the typical behaviour of a seven-year-old through that lens is seen as violent). Black girls have consistently been shown to be disciplined at twice the rate of white peers. Zero tolerance discipline policies and recent anti-bullying policies target Black children, and are used to push children out of school at young ages. One source inside the education system reports seeing Black children as young a grade primary being suspended from school  — “what can you possibly do at that age to earn a suspension?” they questioned.

Harsh discipline practices directed at Black children reflect the idea that Black people are dangerous and must be subjected to social controls. This plantation mentality imagines Black people as a savage force only kept in check by white vigilance. Black people must be disciplined, whether by the principal or by police or by the warden.

As schools respond to calls for “safety” with more discipline, more lockdowns, more security, and less access to the community members, schools begin to resemble prisons. In-school police officers, placed into schools in “troubled” areas, accustom racialized students to contact with the law and with seeing themselves as subjects constantly under policing. Security measures like cameras, locked schools, searches of students, and so forth, contribute to creating prison-like conditions within the school, and to mimicking incarceration in the closing off of the school from the public.

As was reported to me by one prisoner in a provincial facility, he was told by guards that the problem with Burnside is it’s in the city and so the media are able to find out information. If the jail were in a remote area, this flow of information and public access would be more easily controlled and contained. Just as the statistics on prison numbers have been buried, the educational statistics have similarly been covered up, not released, and not subjected to public inquiry. Hiding the numbers means hiding what is done in schools and prisons and who it is done to.

— Policing —

There is a lot of attention paid to “carding” — the practice of racial profiling — in Toronto, but in Halifax there seems to be little attention paid to how the police interact with Black and Indigenous communities. This article from the Globe & Mail in 2015 reviewed the practice of street checks across Canada and found them to be unregulated, that the records are kept indefinitely, and that there was a lack of mandated sets of procedures.

The Halifax police claimed that these stops are based on “suspicion” and not race. Deputy chief Bill Moore termed the high number of stops in Halifax “good police work,” and suggested stopping people for “standing by a building at night” was a reasonable example of a street check.

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As usual, statistics that prove what Black and Indigenous people experience are hard to come by. It seems likely that the sort of people stopped for standing by buildings at night are more likely to be the same people who are stopped when trying to shop in stores, who are asked “can I help you” when they walk around universities or other places they are “not supposed to be,” and who people cross the street when they see them coming. A Black mother, for example, recounts experiencing white women move aside with a look of fear when she walks down the street — we cannot simply “be” in public, she points out.

These same attitudes about the danger and threat of Black people, and the sense that we are not supposed to be in “white” spaces leads both to Black people being stopped more often in white neighbourhoods, and to the confinement of Black people to particular neighbourhoods that can then be more efficiently policed. The location of “community police” stations in Black communities speaks to the commitment to policing Black communities.

The over-stopping of Black and Indigenous people results in a number of effects. If you stop more of one population, you are inevitably going to uncover more crimes by those people. This in turn confirms the idea that population is more criminal, which justifies even more stops. Accustoming young people to being policed results in them seeing themselves as singled out by society, and contributes to the alienation young racialized people feel. If you are going to be treated like a criminal, maybe that’s what you are. More arrests as a result of more people being stopped leads to more people in that population with records. This means more people who are likely to face employment discrimination, meaning more poverty in the neighbourhood, leading to more people turning to the streets to support themselves. This creates cycles of poverty and imprisonment which in turn create the “need” for heavier policing.

When people are arrested and put on conditions for bail or for probation, these conditions will usually bar them from having contact with people with criminal records. When your neighbourhood is full of people with criminal records, this can become an impossible condition, which in turn means that when you stop people for “standing by buildings at night,” you are more likely to uncover “breaches” that lead to people being incarcerated.

Sean Macdonald, the lawyer for Glen Assoun’s wrongful conviction appeal, spoke about how when people are perceived as an “underclass,” it’s not seen as a big deal if they have a record. Lawyers will plea clients out, and people will take deals even if they’re not guilty just to avoid jail time. He believes that most wrongful conviction happens at this level — it’s not the big murder cases, but the clients being encouraged to just take a deal. Then when they breach the conditions of that deal, they end up incarcerated, or they end up with enough previous charges to prevent them from getting bail. And then their previous record can end up being used against them in more serious charges to paint them as a hardened “career” criminal.

Policing Black and Indigenous communities produces the idea of those communities as more dangerous and criminal. Reporting on arrests in these communities creates a further perception of racialized populations being “more violent.” Black crime is seen as “different” from white crime, something embedded in Blackness rather than just an individual committing a wrongful act. This in turn creates the perception that Black or Indigenous people are more criminal, which leads to the higher likelihood of defendants being convicted based on these biases.

— Unconscious Bias —

Think about the effect the coverage of the recent shootings in the Halifax area will have on Black defendants  — after weeks of coverage depicting Black people and our communities as deviant, more violent, naturally criminal, dysfunctional, etc. do we think that will have no effect when Black defendant go to court, particularly on weapons charges?

These kind of unconscious biases are not revealed in “challenge for cause” which will ask if a juror can try the case without racial bias, but will rarely examine what that bias may be, what images of Black people the potential juror might have seen, what assumptions they hold about Black communities or Black bodies, whether they know any Black people socially or if their main impression of Black people comes from the media, whether they associate Black communities with violence, whether they see Black people as less remorseful or less like them or less capable of change, and so forth.

Systemic racism doesn’t require people waking up in the morning and deliberately contemplating how to mess with a Black or Indigenous person’s life. A juror or Crown or judge or parole officer doesn’t have to consciously be racist to have unconsciously absorbed ideas about Black and Indigenous people that affect their verdict, sentence, the severity of the charges, or the assessment of their character.

— In the Court —

recent Charter challenge on the right of Indigenous defendants to have juries with Indigenous people on them was rejected, yet then there is surprise that Indigenous people are over-incarcerated.

The African Nova Scotian prisoner serving a 40+ year sentence had this to say about his experience of the courts:

If you look at minorities going to court, they do more time. I had a lawyer from Ontario, and even they noticed the racism in the system here.

Even on my jury I had no Black jurors. And some of the Black people I did recognize were people I knew so they couldn’t put on the jury.

This prisoner points to the exclusion of Black jurors. In Halifax, with a relatively small population of Black people in tight-knit communities, the likelihood of somehow knowing a Black defendant is high. While African Nova Scotians end up excluded from juries for this bias, white biases about Black people are not similarly excised by the system. He also pointed to the lack of Black lawyers or judges who can understand and empathize with the background of Black defendants. “Things are not always like they appear,” he said, meaning that assumptions of guilt or allegations around crime or criminal behaviour get attached to Black people unchallenged.

He continued:

They try to lock us up and put us away without giving us second chances. Plenty of factors come into play. Politics. Race. I got a 40-year sentence — that’s without killing anybody. Nobody protests that stuff.

We don’t have the same opportunity when it comes to white people. Stuff like representation. Most of us come from low-income families. So we have to get a public defender, and even they’re white.

The way I see this, they’re [lawyers, police, correctional officials, etc.] all cut from the same cloth — they’re all working in cahoots together…

Statistically, if you look at the same type of crimes a white person commits, with a similar record, they’re getting all kinds of breaks. I know it has to do with past history, you’ll see it’s a big difference. When it comes to minorities, even Natives too, we’re getting more time.

These “lack of breaks” for Black and Indigenous defendants also mean that they are less likely to be granted bail. Previous records are used to deny bail, even when those records are the result of youth offences. I have been in court and heard Black and Indigenous men be denied bail based on the evidence of “a record as long as my arm,” dating back to age 12 or 13, which is seen as proof the defendant is unsalvageable. Rather than seeing a record of repeat offences as a youth as the result of life trauma, often caused by being in the foster care system or being the victim of family violence, these records are used to label people as higher risk and result in being denied bail. This contributes to the high number of Black and Indigenous people on remand, meaning they are held in jail before trial. This in turn means they can’t work or attend school or programs, are subject to more likelihood of violence before trial, and punishes people before they have been convicted while they are still considered to be innocent.


That in turn leads to overcrowded jails as more people are held on remand, which leads to more tension and violent situations as people are double-bunked. This also leads to more lockdowns (particularly as provincial jails have short term offenders coming in and out, leading to more difficulty in keeping contraband out), and more disciplinary actions such as segregating prisoners.

At the same time, overpopulation means programs cannot be effectively delivered, and inmates are denied adequate yard time or gym time — despite being a right under the Correctional Act — because the jail simply cannot accommodate so many people. Women held in provincial facilities that are majority male are the particular victims of losing programming and exercise as they cannot be in areas at the same time as the men.

When I asked about the length of his sentence, he elaborated:

They were going to go for Dangerous Offender but then that got taken off the table. I had to plead guilty and take the sentence because otherwise I could never be getting out. I don’t know if statistically there’s more Black guys being given that. I know a few people Black and white who have it, but back in the day in Nova Scotia they didn’t give it out as much — that’s a touchy subject there. They’re giving it to all sorts of different people.

Being designated a “Dangerous Offender” means the person can be kept in prison indefinitely. Because a “life sentence” in Canada is 25 years before a chance of parole, “being D.O.ed” was originally conceived to provide a way for the most extreme offenders such as Paul Bernardo or Robert Pickton to be kept in prison. While male dangerous offenders are historically serial killers — Russell Wilson, for example, is not even a dangerous offender — for women, being Indigenous and mentally ill is enough to be designated. While male offenders are given the designation for crimes they committed in society, the women who have been made dangerous offenders all “became” dangerous in prison.

For example, Renee Acoby, an Ojibwa woman initially imprisoned for a robbery she was so drunk she didn’t even remember committing, was made a dangerous offender after her child was taken from her in prison. Placed on “Management Protocol” which required her to do things like earn 10 squares of toilet paper a day, not use profane language for 30 days, or clean her floor with a facecloth, she was driven to act out against prison staff in response to indefinite segregation.

While there is no evidence in statistics, anecdotally I have heard many cases of the use of Dangerous Offender against Black men accused of weapons or gang affiliations. There is also evidence that the threat of Dangerous Offender status is being used to coerce or threaten Black men into taking harsh sentences. Jerrell Shephard, for example, took a 20-year deal to avoid this designation. Because these men are pleading guilty in fear of even harsher sentences, they lose their chance for appeal.

Using Dangerous Offender in response to “community outrage” against Black violence results in a form of miscarriage of justice where Black people are punished far more harshly for crimes like attempted murder simply based on their being Black and the rhetoric around Black crime and violence.

It would not surprise me at all if the recent “shooters” were threatened with or given this status, while white men only receive it for serial killing and raping multiple women. Previous records are also used to label defendants as more dangerous, even though those records may result from being incarcerated for crimes that white people would not be sentenced for.

The use of so-called gang laws — which often falsely label Black and Indigenous defendants based on the neighbourhoods they grow up in, their associates, speculation about the meaning of tattoos, and so forth — are also used to give harsh sentences.

For example, a Black parent reports his son’s school hosting a speech by a police officer who labeled the “Mountain Avenue Boys” as an emerging gang. It was in fact, simply a group of friends on the street, children his own son hung out with. Any gathering of more than two Black or Indigenous people can be labelled as a “gang” and used to lengthen sentences. Being labelled as a gang member also leads to being classified high risk and placed in maximum facilities, being barred from transferring to certain facilities if you have gang activity in your record, trouble cascading down to lower security institutions, a harder time getting parole, and difficulty being accepted in halfway houses.

The Black and Indigenous lifer, when asked “is the system racist?” responded:

I feel white people get slaps on the wrist – and white people tend to have the resources to have attorneys. A judge actually told me that 90 per cent of cases that go to court are settled in the hallways. So these lawyers who are mostly white, they’re making deals with other white lawyers for their white clients.

Our representation is a travesty too. Like, my lawyer didn’t take the time to find out I’m also Native or do a Gladue report. White people are dealt with more fairly…

…If you’re not white you’re in trouble. These lawyers don’t give a fuck about you. They’re there to rub elbows with their colleagues. They don’t give a fuck about minorities in court. It took me over a decade to find the right lawyers to help me [appeal his case]. But you don’t find those people too often…

…If someone did a crime I believe they should be punished. But actually pull out your microscope and look at what’s underlying the crime. Have the evidence looked at. When people can prove their situation they should be able to take it to court and get a hearing. The real gangsters are the ones that wear the white collars and black robes.

— Prison —

While the numbers in the report only deal with provincial institutions, meaning institutions where prisoners are either on remand or serving sentences of less than two years, once convicted, those prisoners experience the system differently as well. The same experiences of oppression that result in Black and Indigenous people being more highly policed and arrested, given harsher charges, denied bail, convicted disproportionately, and given longer sentences, mean additionally that they are more likely to enter the federal system than other prisoners. This also results in being given higher classification and being sent to maximum facilities more frequently.

As Nancy Macdonald observed in Maclean’s:

In prison, Indigenous offenders serve much harder time than anyone else. Indigenous inmates are placed in minimum-security institutions at just half the rate of their non-Indigenous counterparts. They are more likely to be placed in segregation, accounting for 31 per cent of cases; and, once in isolation, they’ll spend 16 per cent more time there. They account for 45 per cent of all self-harm incidents. Nine in 10 are held to the expiry of their sentence, versus two-thirds of the non-Indigenous inmate population. They are more likely to be restrained in prison, to be involved in use-of-force incidents, to receive institutional charges, to die there.

Many of these disparities are known because Howard Sapers, the correctional investigator of Canada, made a point of tracking race-specific corrections data. Two years ago, troubled by the surging growth of the Indigenous inmate population, he issued a special report on it in Parliament, blaming systemic racism and cultural bias. It was one of only two the office has ever issued, to “signal this was a very important matter requiring urgent action.” It received “anything but,” Sapers says now, bitterly. Last year, the federal government announced he was being replaced (a process interrupted by the election, which left him on the job).

An Indigenous offender’s problems begin with intake, Sapers says, where their risk level is often consistently over-classified by the Custody Rating Scale; it determines whether they belong in minimum, medium or maximum security (and almost everything else about their time behind bars). For years, the federal government has been ignoring repeated demands to reform these and other assessment tools used on the Indigenous inmate population. The latest, in September, came in a blistering Federal Court ruling. Justice Michael Phelan ordered Correctional Service Canada (CSC) to stop using them on Indigenous offenders, arguing they are “susceptible to cultural bias,” and can produce “junk” data.

The outrage is that what is being used to classify Indigenous inmates as high risk is the very conditions of colonial oppression:

Part of the problem is that the marginalization experienced by some Indigenous peoples gets turned into “risk”: intergenerational trauma, alcoholism, a history of abuse, a lack of education, employment, a bank account or even hobbies make it more likely an inmate will be housed in maximum, and classed “high risk.”

Renous prison. Image from
Renous prison. Image from

Both of the prisoners I talked to are doing significant time in federal facilities. I asked the lifer about his experiences of racism inside prison:

It depends – that’s a two-pronged question. There’s back then and there’s now. Back in the day [early 2000s] Black people were treated terribly in Renous [Atlantic Institution: the maximum facility for the Atlantic region]. Black guys were just put in segregation. I was one of like five Black guys when they started letting us come out into the population. The deal was there was only supposed to be one Black guy on every range.

I remember I was playing 2pac, and this white guy would stand outside my house [cell] and just complain. You couldn’t really practice your culture. People would put kites in on you [send notes to the staff]. And that’s how it was when I started my bid.

All the Black people used to stay in the hole [segregation]. If they tried to come out, they’d get a kite saying “we’re going to hang a nigger.” So they wouldn’t let you out.

We changed all that. Renous used to be a white supremacist prison. There were guys that died in there. Nowadays we don’t get recognition, but we started all that. The culture has changed. Even the ones that used to call nigger and didn’t like Black people, they got to know us.

People forget how it was. Wade Parsons was murdered by white supremacists. Kevin Whynder was murdered by two white supremacists.

I was beating up racists — that’s why the fights I got into were so severe. Pretty much the racists were stomped out of Renous. Don’t get me wrong, it’s still there, but it’s beneath the sheets.

When I asked him about racism in prison now, he said:

There’s all kinds of different discrimination. Like English against French. East versus West. There’s men against women, like a female guard will walk on the range and guys will say disgusting stuff. I don’t like that. There’s deportees versus everyone else — there’s all kinds of guys here from Puerto Rico who are waiting to be deported, and they treat them worse than anyone else. There’s stuff like the Rastafarians here, people know they have a special diet so they’ll mess with their food. 

You don’t know where it’s going to come from. Like a white guy could find out his wife’s fucking a Black guy and now he hates niggers and wants to take it out on people. 

When I asked the other man, he emphasized that racism is systemic. While he acknowledged that “some people will make little jokes, or do stuff indirectly,” he felt that the worst racism was in the way the system operates:

When it comes time for parole we’re treated differently. Look at the parole system and how many people get it. The system as a whole, it’s stacked against us.

There’s a lot of Black guys in the max. To get into a max, you have to do something [violent]. But even in the system they give white people chances. Like today, two white people got in a fight and they didn’t even go to segregation – the system gives them more chances.

We need to have more minorities in the system. Like for example at Renous, there’s not one Black person who works there. If you look at parole officers or correctional staff, you want someone that can kind of relate to what happened in your life. But you get white people who can’t wrap their head around it.

The system doesn’t help us. Wherever you go there’s no Black warden or no Black staff members, period. Here they have maybe six guards, tops. No Black parole officers. So if you look how many you’re going to find, there’s not going to be many.

Other prisoners in provincial facilities report racism both from guards and other prisoners, including being called “nigger,” having guards make racist or derogatory comments, and being subjected to racist jokes.

Another former prisoner who was involved with the inmate committee at Springhill (a federal institution in Nova Scotia) recalled the warden asking the Black members of the committee why Black guys weren’t successful in getting parole. “We don’t give ourselves parole!” he pointed out. “Why are you asking us, like we have any control over what you give us?”

As both of the prisoners I talked to were doing time out of province, despite being from Nova Scotia and having served part of their sentence here, I asked about transfers, and whether Black or Indigenous people were more likely to face involuntary transfers:

They can’t just up and ship you. They’ll leave you down in the hole. So a lot of guys will agree to the transfer just to get out.

For both Black and Indigenous inmates, reports by the Correctional Investigator showed more time in solitary, more institutional reports, and more involvement in officers using force. Because these prisoners are seen as more dangerous and more disruptive — due to the same racialized stereotypes at work all over society — they receive more disciplinary reports which can lead to being transferred out of facilities.

This of course makes it more difficult for family to visit, and for many low-income families, flying children across the country for a three-day visit may simply not be possible. As well, one can speculate that Black and Indigenous women are more likely to be treated as suspicious when visiting, more likely to be accused of drug trafficking if they get a scanner hit — proved to be notoriously unreliable  — which in turn can result in the person they are visiting being accused of conspiring to bring in contraband, given segregation or denied visits. The fear of being turned away because of false scanner hits prevents many people from visiting. Many others have been falsely accused, denied the right to defend themselves even if they request being searched to prove their innocence, and blocked from visiting.

As one prisoner described:

If you got a track record, they will up and move you to show you that you don’t have the power, we have the power. The jail will give you enough rope to hang yourself.

In his case, despite initially resisting his transfer, he felt that the move had been positive because of his negative history in Renous. The move allowed him a fresh start, and in particular, allowed him to become more involved in practicing his Indigenous spirituality, which he finds healing. He is currently working with elders to cascade to the Indigenous healing centre in the next couple of years.

— After Prison —

The statistics reflect the problems in prison. What they can’t show is what happens after prison. The disproportionate incarceration of Black and Indigenous people also means that there is a heightened effect on communities and on the struggle for reintegration.

The man doing 40 years pointed again to how systemic racism affects people even after they serve their time:

There’s racism at school. Even jobs – some guys when they get out of prison they can’t even get a good job. No one will even hire them.

Pointing to the lack of Black parole officers, he felt that at all levels of the system, Black people are stereotyped and misunderstood. Without people to help who could empathize, former prisoners end up back in the system.

The other man also talked about the difficulty of leaving prison behind and breaking free of the conditions that led to imprisonment:

One day when people get out of jail only the chosen few aren’t going to reoffend. When you come to jail it doesn’t matter what brought you here, there’s things to keep you here. And when you get out you end up a slave to whatever it is and you land up back here. And maybe now you’re back here with two or three of your friends, and it just keeps going. 

As well as the problems in getting a job, prison leaves deep emotional and mental scars. The trauma from prison can have devastating effects.

One man told me that his brother served eight years and now has to live apart from his wife and child because he can’t stand having anyone in his personal space.

Another woman told me of her husband sleeping on the couch because he fears waking up from a nightmare or waking at a sound and accidentally hurting her.

One lifer reflected that when he gets out, he could end up going to the mall and just standing there because he hasn’t used a door in decades.

Others are unable to handle crowds, suffer from panic attacks, can’t have people behind them, can’t sleep, react to every sound as a threat, and other traumatic effects.

Prison also puts a strain on relationships. Very few long term relationships survive significant prison sentences. Even if family or romantic relationships are maintained, having a healthy relationship from prison is impossible no matter how much dedication and love there is. Nothing will make up for the missed funerals, birthday parties, first day of classes. Parents find themselves having to get to know their children for real after years of brief visits. Children suffer from their parents’ imprisonment, and deal with anger and abandonment. Often families look forward to the time of release imagining that everything will be okay once the person gets out, only to find unexpected challenges upon release that seem unbearable after weathering so many terrible things. Relationships began in prison face new tensions when the person gets out and is suddenly around every day, dealing with their experiences. A person on tight conditions upon release may be on house arrest, placing further tension on loved ones.

And most people do not talk about any of this because of the stigma of imprisonment and the shame. So families go on, after years of coping with incarceration, struggling to heal without supports, afraid to admit problems in case it ends up with the person being re-incarcerated, dealing with violence or addiction or other problems created by prison, trying to reform fractured families, meeting with disappointment as jobs are denied, as people struggle to cope, as tempers flare and depression rises, as the very thing families looked forward to only leads to more problems.

We say do the crime do the time, but in reality, people pay the price long after the end of their sentence.

The numbers show how many people are incarcerated. But they don’t reflect the mothers, partners, children, friends, cousins, communities damaged and destroyed by incarceration. They don’t show the financial cost. They don’t show the shunning by neighbours, the selling your car to get bail money, the lying to the kids that “daddy’s away at work” to protect them from knowing. They don’t show the children who casually name all the people in prison they know. They don’t show the wounds in communities, the grandparents and parents who die without seeing their child free, or how it feels to mentor children in a highly incarcerated community and wonder which ones will be going to prison.

It’s bad enough that the numbers have been invisible so long. Even worse is the invisibility of the wounds, and how many people bear them, even if they never went to prison. There can never be statistics to capture that.

Editor’s note: El Jones is an important and strong voice in the community, and we at the Examiner are proud to host her work every Saturday. To help us continue to provide Jones’ needed voice, please consider subscribing to the Examiner. Just $5 or $10 a month goes a long way. Or, consider making a one-time contribution via PayPal. Thanks much!

El Jones is a poet, journalist, professor, community advocate, and activist. Her work focuses on social justice issues such as feminism, prison abolition, anti-racism, and decolonization.

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  1. I met you once El, and you told me you don’t read the comments to your articles. I sincerely hope you might make an exception to my earnest response here.

    If I understand you correctly Black and Indigenous people commit crimes largely as a result of lifestyle issues beyond their control, such as drug and alcohol abuse, sexual abuse and sheer poverty. This leads them to crime, then they face an unfair police and justice system which sentences them to sensory deprivation (solitary confinement) violent and sexual abuse, inadvertently punishes their loved ones, after which obstacles are then placed to their re-integration into a society biased against them in the first place.

    Why would anyone work to get out of jail and build a stake in a society they saw in that light?

    I would love to read a detailed rebuttal of this by those who work within the prison or justice system. This would be a good place for it. The absence of it tends to reinforce your case.

    I’m a white immigrant and don’t know of anybody who has spent time ‘inside’, so I guess it’s fair to say nobody I know has any idea how bad it can be. A hint has been provided with recent Supreme Court rulings on the excessive use of solitary confinement. I would agree there is a common perception that Black people (I don’t know if it includes Natives) are more likely to commit crimes, especially more serious ones, and those involving firearms. News reporting seems to reinforce that message.

    Theoretically our society sends people convicted in a fair trial of having broken the law to jail to deprive them of their freedom for a specified period, to protect us all from them and to hopefully rehabilitate them so they become decent, useful people like everyone else outside when their time is up.

    Courts do not sentence those convicted to sensory deprivation, to the punishment and loss of their families and personal relationships, to rape and violent assaults, the mistreatment of the mentally ill and promotion of suicide, yet all these things seem to be a collateral effect of incarceration as you describe it.

    The courts have little choice though. The laws stipulate punishments which include jail sentences that the judges must impose. The prisons are maintained by the federal and various provincial governments, and it seems to me that if people rightfully serving time for crimes committed there are also being subjected to systemic or arbitrary inhumane treatment never prescribed by any court, then those governments are ultimately responsible.

    Governments are formed by political parties, which are motivated by votes and ultimately I doubt there are many votes in prison reform. My limited experience suggests most people believe that anyone sentenced to jail time deserves their fate. Many people also strongly believe that youth offenders get treated far too easily, and especially for more serious crimes should be judged in adult courts. NS voters generally feel overtaxed, and government proposals to spend more public money on improving prison conditions – especially accompanied by bigger deficits or tax hikes – will not endear them to voters at election time.

    Yet, I wonder if there is a parallel between widely tolerated, systemic mistreatment of incarcerated prisoners and torture? After all, Canada is a signatory to conventions that ban its use, yet (at least on perhaps smaller scale) it might arguably be happening in our prisons, especially (but not exclusively) targeted against Black and Indigenous prisoners. Could Canada’s treatment of domestic prisoners be raised in the UN? By whom?

    Whatever the majority view of Black and Indigenous people, I think Canadians generally pride themselves on being fair and just. The Mulroney government was a major world contributor to the end of Apartheid. Articles like this challenge that view. (So does the long-standing Third World living conditions many Indigenous communities face where even something as basic as clean water is not always accessible). Education can take a long time but embarrassment can be much faster. Governments are especially vulnerable at election time, but electoral platitudes don’t always translate into actual policy.

    To my knowledge only the NDP in Nova Scotia actively supports the elimination of poverty and promotion of full equality. The Liberals and the Progressive Conservatives priorities mirror those of the voters – with the economy and jobs at the top. Right now, the New Democrats appear the only political solution to even getting the policy ball rolling on trying to fix these serious problems.

    The only other way includes what you are doing right here, detailing the issues and the mechanism by way they come to pass and never go away. Sadly I doubt many people will read this article. It’s not a brief item about hockey – your articles often require effort. That in no way devalues their contents. Some things can’t be said in a brief paragraph.

    Outside their families, for better or worse most people learn their basic values from engaging storytelling, the most powerful of which is film and TV. Unfortunately the Nova Scotia film industry – best positioned to tell these stories and raise the controversy needed to put them atop Nova Scotians’ double doubles is now on life support – an result of the McNeil’s government’s ill-conceived policy to save pennies in spending while hemorrhaging dollars in revenue. Still the film “Across the Line” about the 1989 Cole Harbor High ‘race riots’ was released in April (this looks like a Toronto co-venture with Halifax’s DHX rather than an NS originated film). How widely it will be seen is another matter. I hope it will get national broadcast on the CBC. More contemporary ones are needed to make the point. I can hear people saying “Yes, but that was 1989 – everything’s fine now”.

    It will take many examples like this clearly illustrating contemporary issues including ongoing prostitution, drug gangs, poverty, the police and court bias and the subtle ways life is made harder for Blacks and Natives (a while back the CBC did an eye-opening item on how renting the same apartment was made more difficult for a young black and a white male, I think it was on Marketplace).

    You would know better than I that he name of the game is to make broader society care enough to change these things. Good luck.