#Indigenous;

The Argument for External Oversight of Federal Prisons – The New OCI Annual Report

The recently published Annual Report of the Office of the Correctional Investigator (OCI) reinforces the argument for independent, external oversight of federal prisons in Canada. Issued in mid-February 2020 in both English and French, the OCI Annual Report throws a critical spotlight on an array of problems currently afflicting the federal prison estate.

Even though not an official OPCAT-inspired NPM entity, the Office of the Correctional Investigator is the closest Canada has to such a body. A 2019 report highlighted the many strengths of the mechanism from an OPCAT perspective.

In view of the OCI Annual Report’s less-than-flattering findings, it remains baffling that Canada has yet to put pen to paper to ratify the OPCAT, more so in view of the fact that a former Minister of Foreign Affairs stated that the OPCAT was no longer optional for Canada nearly four years ago.

It should also be noted that Correctional Investigator himself, Dr. Ivan Zinger, has repeatedly urged ratification of the instrument, including in a recent OCI Annual Report.

The OCI Annual Report 2018-2019 groups its findings and related concerns into six chapters as follows:

  • Healthcare in federal facilities;
  • Deaths in custody;
  • Conditions of confinement;
  • Indigenous corrections;
  • Safe and timely reintegration;
  • And federally sentenced women.

For the time-poor reader Dr. Zinger’s introduction to the OCI Annual Report, his so-called Correctional Investigator’s Message, offers an excellent overview of the report and his main concerns and recommendations. For ease of reference, a summary of his recommendations is also compiled in Annex 1 of the report.

Even so, the following paragraphs penned by the Correctional Investigator, highlighting contemporary causes of concern, merit our closer attention:

“Since assuming my duties, I have taken a special interest in identifying conditions of confinement and treatment of prisoners that fail to meet standards of human dignity, violate human rights or otherwise serve no lawful purpose. The issues investigated and highlighted in my report raise fundamental questions of correctional purpose challenging anew the assumptions, measures and standards of human decency and dignity in Canadian prisons:

  • Introduction of a standardized “random” strip-searching routine and protocol (1:3 ratio) at women offender institutions.
  • Staff culture of impunity and mistreatment at Edmonton Institution.
  • Elevated rate of use of force incidents at the Regional Treatment Centres (designated psychiatric hospitals for mentally ill patient inmates).
  • Lack of in-cell toilets on one living unit at Pacific Institution.
  • Provision of the first medically assisted death in a federal penitentiary.
  • Prison food that is substandard and inadequate to meet nutritional needs.
  • Operational challenges in meeting the needs of transgender persons in prison.
  • Housing maximum-security inmates with behavioural or mental health needs on “therapeutic” ranges that serve segregation diversion ends.” (p. 3)

Readers may recall that the Correctional Investigator dominated Canadian news headlines in January 2020 by dint of his multiple concerns about the so-called ‘Indigenization’ of Canada’s federal prison population. Dr. Zinger referred to this bleak reality as Canada’s ‘national travesty’, a concern which resonated widely and deeply among human rights actors and penal reformers in the country. It is therefore not coincidental that many of these same concerns are highlighted in the OCI Annual Report 2018-2019.

The above list of penal-related woes underscores the absolute need for independent oversight of prisons in Canada, whether federal or provincial, to which the Office of the Correctional Investigator makes an invaluable contribution. Simply put, left to its own devices Canada’s federal prison service is unlikely to quickly reform and correct practices which violate fundamental human rights without external prompting.

Furthermore, in the light of Canada’s long-overdue ratification of the OPCAT, the need for the Office of the Correctional Investigator and other analogue oversight mechanisms in the country is arguably even greater.

In the recent past other key reports of the Office of the Correctional Investigator have been highlighted on this website and come as recommended reading. The February 2019 report, Aging & Dying in Prison, which was co-published with the Canadian Human Rights Commission, is an illustrative case in point.

Prison by Matthias Mueller (2007)

The Correctional Investigator himself has captured the absolute importance of and need for the oversight function as exercised by his office in the following terms:

“I fully understand and accept that the business of prison oversight, standing up for the rights of sentenced persons and advocating for fair and humane treatment of prisoners are not activities that are widely recognized or praised. Yet, to turn a phrase made famous by a young Winston Churchill, if prisons are places where the principles of human dignity, compassion and decency are stretched to their limits, then how we treat those deprived of their liberty is still one of the most enduring tests of a free and democratic society. Independent monitoring is needed to ensure the inmate experience does not demean or degrade the inherent worth and dignity of the human person.” (p.2.)

The Canada OPCAT Project could not put it better and echos these sentiments entirely. It is high time for Canada to take the next logical step and to ratify the OPCAT.


The 2018-2019 Annual Report of the Office of the Correctional Investigator of Canada can be downloaded in English and French.

Read the related news release in English and French.

Check out the OCI backgrounder in English and French.

A related presentation deck has also been published in English and French.

Posted by mp in Independent detention monitors, Indigenous people, OPCAT, Oversight bodies, Prisons

Canada’s National Travesty – Prison Indigenization

The Indigenization of Canada’s prison population has been described as being “nothing short of a national travesty.”

This highly damning indictment was advanced by Canada’s Correctional Investigator, Dr. Ivan Zinger, the country’s federal prison ombudsperson, in a news release issued on 21 January 2020.

Down Under
Light in the Darkness by Drew Douglas (2007).

The Correctional Investigator stated:

“Four years ago, my Office reported that persons of Indigenous ancestry had reached 25% of the total inmate population. At that time, my Office indicated that efforts to curb over-representation were not working.  Today, sadly, I am reporting that the proportion of Indigenous people behind bars has now surpassed 30%.”

In the news release Dr. Zinger suggests that surpassing the 30% mark indicates a deepening Indigenization of Canada’s correctional system. 

In the absence of any domestic OPCAT monitoring body in Canada, the Correctional Investigator plays a vital role in monitoring the treatment and conditions of federal prisoners in the country. Dr. Zinger has repeatedly called on Canada to sign and ratify the OPCAT.

Shockingly, the Correctional Investigator stressed that the numbers are even more troubling for Indigenous women, who now account for 42% of the women prisoner population in Canada, despite just forming a small percentage of the overall population. He added that the federal prison service seems impervious to change and unresponsive to the needs, histories and social realities behind high rates of Indigenous offending.

What is more, the experiences of many Indigenous persons in federal facilities are mostly far from positive, rehabilitative episodes.

It was observed that year after year, the Office of the Correctional Investigator has documented that Indigenous prisoners are disproportionately classified and placed in maximum security institutions, over-represented in use of force and self-injurious incidents, and historically, were more likely to be placed and held longer in segregation units.

Moreover, compared to their non-Indigenous counterparts, Indigenous offenders serve a higher proportion of their sentence behind bars before being granted parole, the press article stated.

Another key Canadian human rights actor, the Canadian Human Rights Commission, threw its full weight behind the federal ombudsperson’s highly critical findings. Marie-Claude Landry, the Chief Commissioner of the Canadian Human Rights Commission, underlined the following in a press statement issued the same day:

“The Commission is deeply disturbed by the recent findings of the Office of the Correctional Investigator that the proportion of Indigenous people in federal prisons has now surpassed a staggering 30% of the total inmate population.”

“This is a national disgrace. We strongly agree with the Correctional Investigator that bold and urgent action is required to address this persistent and pressing human rights issue.”

The leading National Indigenous Organization for women, the Native Women’s Association of Canada, was equally as scathing in its condemnation. In its own response NWAC President Lorraine Whitman commented:

“It is time that Canada recognizes the over-representation of Indigenous peoples in correctional systems. These findings are a symptom of historical and current systems of colonialism, racism and sexism against First Nations, Métis, and Inuit women.”

“All levels of government need to take real action now to reduce the number of incarcerated Indigenous peoples.”

The organization also threw a spotlight on both the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls’ 231 Calls for Justice from 2019 and the National Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s 94 Calls to Action from 2015. Both reports demand transformative change within Canada’s criminal justice system. 

Whether the federal Canadian authorities will muster the political will to act on these recommendations remains to be seen. Even so, the Correctional Investigator’s findings underpin the absolute importance of the need to exercise independent oversight of the country’s closed institutions, more so in the absence of an OPCAT-based National Preventive Mechanism. It can only be hoped that the federal prison estate can be pulled back from its current disastrous Indigenization trajectory.


Read the Correctional Investigator’s statement in English and French.

Learn more about Dr. Zinger’s views in support of the OPCAT.

See the statement of the Canadian Human Rights Commission in English and French.

Read the Native Women’s Association of Canada’s press release.

Explore the joint 2019 report of the Office of the Canadian Investigator and the Canadian Human Rights Commission, Aging and Dying in Prison.

Posted by mp in Indigenous people, Oversight bodies, Prisons, Women prisoners

COPCAT Shorts – Indigenous Canada Featured in Global Prison Trends 2019

“Indigenous peoples are heavily overrepresented in prison populations – particularly in Australia, Canada and New Zealand – and this is a persistent and growing problem, especially for women.” (21)

“Women from Indigenous communities and ethnic minorities face significant disadvantages in the criminal justice system, due to the double discrimination of gender and race – which is usually coupled with poor socio-economic status and education. The rate of criminalisation and imprisonment of Indigenous women is particularly concerning in Canada, Australia and New Zealand.” (20)

“Nearly half of all youth who were in custody in Canada in 2016–17 were Indigenous, despite making up only eight per cent of the youth population.” (24)

Excerpts from Penal Reform International’s Global Prison Trends 2019.

Indigenous Canadians in PRI's report, Global Prison Trends

Global Prison Trends is Penal Reform International’s annual flagship publication series which identifies topical developments and challenges in criminal justice, and prison policy and practice at the global level. 

PRI sets out a raft of key recommendations in the report. These include:

  • States should closely monitor the representation of foreign nationals and people from ethnic and racial minority or Indigenous backgrounds in criminal justice systems. They should review sentencing policies or practices to determine if they are discriminatory, and develop specific measures to meet the rehabilitation and reintegration needs of these prisoners;
  • Countries that have not ratified the Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture should do so. (42-42)

Global Prison Trends 2019 can be downloaded here in English.

Read the Native Women’s Association of Canada’s (NWAC) policy backgrounder, Indigenous Women in Solitary Confinement.

Explore NWAC’s factsheet on Prison Issues.

The ICPA’s March 2019 newsletter on solitary confinement can be read here.

Examine the ICPA’s focus on independent oversight of prisons in Canada.

Posted by mp in Indigenous people, Prisons, Solitary confinement