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The federal government should increase the supports necessary to allow offenders to serve their sentences among their family and elders, witnesses told members of the Standing Committee on Public Safety and National Security on Thursday.

MPs were urged to consider allowing non-violent offenders to serve their sentences at home as a way of greatly reducing the human, social and financial costs associated with Indigenous corrections, and ultimately producing better outcomes.

“To the Native person in Canada, Jail is another word for genocide”; “and to the Indigenous person in Canada, rehabilitation is just another word for residential school,” said Neal Freeland, an Indigenous man who was incarcerated in his youth.

Indigenous people are still overrepresented in the correctional system. Freeland sees institutional racism as a cause of prison overrepresentation. He said a healing path for Indigenous offenders can best be achieved if connections between the individual and their community are cultivated by allowing the individual to serve their sentence in the community or by allowing community elders to conduct culturally specific programming in prisons.

“…Metis for Metis; Inuit for Inuit: and First Nations for First Nations”, said Freeland, “…for there is power in the voice and the person that teaches the way. These programs need to be offered to all Indigenous prisoners from the get go.”

Criminal sentencing focuses on the risks posed to the community as reason to send an offender to prison rather than allowing them to serve their sentence in the community, said independent senator Kim Pate, who was the former executive director of the Canadian Association of Elizabeth Fry Societies. She said the sentencing process should consider how to build the necessary supports around an individual to reduce risk to the community, adding reducing the risks to the community could help to allow Indigenous offenders to serve their sentences with guidance from their community and elders.

Even when Indigenous offenders are given the same level of access to service as the general prison population, the programs that prisons offer do not meet Indigenous needs, said Freeland. He cited that in his own experience, prison administrators have often denied Indigenous prisoners access to basic mental health services.

Senator Pate highlighted that transferring funds from prison support programs to community support programs could help to reduce overrepresentation, while reducing the cost of Indigenous corrections.

“If you create a healing lodge for Indigenous prisoners, then you need to let the community run it – Indigenous programming, for Indigenous people, by Indigenous people – and provide the community with the resources to do it properly,” said Freeland. Evening Brief: Peacekeeping, protesters and politeness Advocate calls for boost in Indigenous-run corrections facilities

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