Number of Indigenous youth in Manitoba jails ‘significantly greater’ than in other parts of Canada

A report by Manitoba’s advocate for children and youth says that Indigenous youth are overrepresented in the province’s justice system calling it a “persistent legacy of colonization and residential schools.”

The report, which was released Thursday, focuses on the use of solitary confinement and pepper spray in youth custody facilities in Manitoba, also sheds light on criminal justice issues facing Indigenous youth.

“What we discovered through the course of the two year investigation was extremely concerning, unacceptable and must immediately change,” said Daphne Penrose, Manitoba’s youth advocate.

Read the report: Manitoba Advocate for Children and Youth

According to the report, Indigenous youth in Manitoba are, “16 times more likely to be incarcerated than non-Indigenous youth. This over-representation signals the persistent legacy that colonization and residential schools have had on Indigenous Peoples.”

Penrose’s report says that while nationally, Indigenous males make up 47 per cent of the jail population, and Indigenous females make up 60 per cent, in Manitoba the numbers are “significantly greater at 81 per cent and 82 per cent, respectively.”

The main findings in the report centred around the use of solitary confinement and pepper spray inside the institutions.

The report looked at 1,400 cases of solitary confinement, and 98 incidents where pepper spray was used.

According to Penrose, central to this report are the stories of several youth – four out of the six youth are male, five of the six youth are Indigenous and all were under the care of child and family services. Four of the five youth became involved with community disability services during their time in custody or after their release.

She said all the youth have “significant vulnerabilities and experienced trauma during childhood. Five out of six were diagnosed with FASD or alcohol-related neurodevelopmental disorder (ARND), and all live with significant mental health issues.”

But the report states that Manitoba’s justice department was not able to track the length of stay in solitary confinement for individual youth, how frequently they used it, the reasons for use, or “any trends associated with its use.”

“There is a disproportionate number of Indigenous youth and young people living with mental illnesses and cognitive vulnerabilities in the criminal justice system. However, we do not have enough information to determine how often these populations were placed in solitary confinement or subjected to pepper spray in Manitoba youth custody facilities,” said the report.

“The Manitoba Advocate of Children and Youth is concerned that this lack of comprehensive and systematic data collection and analysis decreases the ability to ensure accountability and transparency of practices in youth custody facilities.”

The report also found that 92 per cent have endured trauma such as physical or sexual abuse prior to custody, 80 per cent have been sexually exploited by adults before entering custody,  between 11 per cent and 22 per cent have FASD, and nearly half of youth have borderline to lower intellectual functioning, with 14 per cent having extremely low functioning (IQ below 70).

“Due to complex social, historical, neurobiological, and structural factors, youth who are Indigenous, experienced trauma, and live with mental illness or cognitive vulnerabilities are more likely to enter the justice system,” the report said.

Penrose is making six recommendations including ending solitary confinement over 24 hours, using pepper spray only in life-threatening situations, and offering more mental health supports for youth in custody.

Manitoba Justice Minister Cliff Cullen said the report is still being reviewed.

“Youth and segregation are there because they’re behaviour possess a risk to themselves, to other inmates or staff,” said Cullen.

Penrose said the justice department has not responded to her recommendations.