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Half of the women in Canada's federal prisons are Indigenous

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

For decades, indigenous women in Canada have been incarcerated in federal prisons at much higher rates than the rest of the population. The country's highest court has even called it a crisis and tried to address discrimination in the legal system. But the problem has not been improving, and now there's a court case and proposed legislation aimed at trying to address it again. Emma Jacobs reports.

EMMA JACOBS, BYLINE: When she was incarcerated, Sheri Pranteau used to call a hotline for women who needed help with things inside - everything from dealing with abuse to finding resources to maintain their mental health. Now she's out of prison, in an apartment in Montreal, and she's answering the calls from other women on that hotline.

SHERI PRANTEAU: They're in a desperate situation or having a human rights violation, and they don't know what to do. It's - I find that it helps when they know that I'm also a lifer.

JACOBS: This is part of her work with the Elizabeth Fry Society, which advocates for women in the justice system. Pranteau is on parole after serving 19 years of a life sentence. She was 19 years old when she helped rob a Winnipeg grocery store alongside a man who shot and killed a young employee. While in prison, Pranteau, whose background is Cree and Anishinaabe, noticed the number of other indigenous women held with her.

PRANTEAU: I was moving around, so everywhere I went it was like - it was just busloads of sisters.

JACOBS: Less than 5% of Canadians are indigenous, but as of the end of April, they were half of women serving sentences in federal prisons. Indigenous women also spend more time in solitary confinement and have a harder time getting parole, says Canada's correctional investigator Ivan Zinger.

IVAN ZINGER: Because of the pandemic, we've seen a significant decrease in the prison population, but it seems that Indigenous prisoners have a harder time to be released than non-Indigenous people.

JACOBS: Zinger says the numbers have gotten worse for Indigenous men and women, but especially for women. When Pranteau was in prison, she started talking to other indigenous women she met to try to understand why this was. She saw a lot of the same reasons as those cited by experts on the outside - systemic inequities, poverty and intergenerational trauma she had experienced in her own life. Pranteau's parents both died young. She ran away a lot from the homes of other relatives before her conviction.

PRANTEAU: Some of the street gangs, you know, were born from - was the poverty, was the trauma, was the alcoholism, the violence, the consequences of our family members coming out of the residential schools with, like, no help, no treatment, no counseling.

JACOBS: Canada's Supreme Court has also cited discrimination in the criminal justice system. Back in a case involving an Indigenous woman in 1999, the court ordered judges to consider discrimination and societal factors in sentencing.

JONATHAN RUDIN: But the criminal justice system is a very slow institution to turn around.

JACOBS: That's Jonathan Rudin, the program director of Aboriginal Legal Services. He says, first, not enough funding went to implementing changes. Then, in 2012, a tough-on-crime conservative government started expanding mandatory minimum sentences for a bunch of different charges.

RUDIN: So judges were faced with, on the one hand, this direction from the Supreme Court to do things differently when it comes to Indigenous people, and then, at the same time, having fewer tools to do that.

JACOBS: But now his group has joined a new legal challenge to those mandatory minimums before Canada's Supreme Court. At the center of the case is the conviction of Cheyenne Sharma, an indigenous teenager who received a mandatory two-year sentence for a drug offense. Rudin says that restoring judges' discretion would be an important step, even if incremental, to address what he calls mass incarceration of Indigenous people. And there is legislation in Parliament to repeal a number of mandatory minimums, but many say that won't go far enough.

BEVERLY JACOBS: So if you keep sticking us and throwing us into the colonial systems, of course they're not going to work for us because that's not the way that we do things.

JACOBS: Beverly Jacobs, a longtime advocate and legal scholar now at the University of Windsor and member of the Mohawk Nation Bear Clan, says change must be transformational.

JACOBS: The systems that need to work are Indigenous systems - are the laws that we've always had as indigenous people that respect - whether it's mental health, emotional, spiritual, physical well-being. It's holistic.

JACOBS: There's so much work to do, she says, to finally see the numbers of Indigenous women in prisons go down. For NPR News, I'm Emma Jacobs in Montreal. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.