A One-Day Snapshot of Aboriginal Youth in Custody Across Canada : Phase II



The two central goals of the Sharing Circle research were to better understand the experiences of Aboriginal youth in custody and to identify potential strategies to reduce future incarceration from the perspective of the participants. The Sharing Circle Team conducted 41 Sharing Circles with approximately 250 Aboriginal youth in 11 different custody facilities (see Appendix C for a list of facilities). The data from the Sharing Circles have been aggregated so that individual institutions are not identifiable. Twelve central themes emerged from the data and were organized into three distinct time-frames. [13]

  • Life on the Outside (Past)

    1. Family Life
    2. Racism
    3. Substance Abuse
    4. Organized Gangs
  • Life on the Inside (Present)

    1. Custodial Staff
    2. Suicide
    3. Gender
    4. Custody/Probation
  • Solutions (Future)

    1. Cultural Programming
    2. Mentoring
    3. General Programming
    4. Community Service

4.1 Life on the Outside (Past)

There were several common experiences among many of the Sharing Circle participants concerning their life prior to incarceration, particularly within their families of origin (e.g., victimization and substance abuse) and within the criminal justice system (e.g., racism).

4.1.1 Family Life

"Why are we victims? Why are we making victims?"

The Sharing Circles provided an opportunity for the participants to reflect on the cycle of dysfunction within their families of origin. Many spoke of physical, sexual and emotional abuse and neglect, but in general terms. A few participants provided more specific comments on their feelings of shame, betrayal and anger due to their childhood victimization.

"I feel dirty and ashamed…it is my family that did it to me."

"…it makes me angry to talk about it.""

"I had to move away from home because I was scared of being abused."

There was overwhelming agreement among the participants that substance abuse within their families was an acute problem.

"Don't drink and do drugs? It's pretty hard when that is what it is like at home."

"There are always people at my house having parties and I don't want to go back home, people would be drunk…"

In addition, some participants spoke of criminality within their families, with many parents, siblings and extended family members serving federal custodial sentences. Exposure to suicide amongst family members was also commonplace for participants in the Sharing Circles. Finally, there was an expressed sense of frustration that, according to some participants, there are no acceptable options available to them if their homes are not appropriate environments.

"I don't want to be at home, but I don't want to be a ward of the state."

4.1.2 Racism

"…they feel like I am dirty, because I am Aboriginal."

One of the more consistent experiences expressed by the participants was the sense that mainstream society, and particularly the criminal justice system, is overtly racist. The incidents described were not typical of covert systemic racism often ascribed to the system. Rather, these were direct, deleterious comments said to the participants by criminal justice professionals. The descriptions of racism shared a common element - the notion that Aboriginals are perceived as 'dirty' and 'alcoholic'.

"I hear racist comments like dirty Indian, go back to the bush."

"…all Indians are drunk Indians."

Some Sharing Circle participants also experienced unfair treatment by criminal justice professionals, in their opinion, based solely on the fact that they were Aboriginal.

"They won't allow natives to hang together, because we are suspected of being in a gang."

"They just treat Aboriginals like dirt… we are not treated with respect."

4.1.3 Substance Abuse

"Drugs and alcohol…really took me down."

Participants in the Sharing Circles dealt with serious substance abuse issues, particularly alcohol and cocaine addiction. Some of the participants explained that alcohol and drugs were used as an escape from their reality. There was an initial positive experience described with their substance of choice. Eventually, however, there were serious negative experiences wherein participants committed their offences while intoxicated or in order to obtain drugs/alcohol. The positive effects disappeared and there was often very serious consequences including incarceration and suicides/overdoses among their peers.

"I feel no one is there to care about me…so then I go to drugs and alcohol to try not to think about it as much as possible."

"It is always there…drugs."

"Drinking and drugs…causes and leads to suicide."

4.1.4 Organized Gangs

"Gangs are stupid to join, but even stupider to quit."

Sharing Circle participants identified participation in organized gangs as a serious issue. Joining a gang provided some participants with self-esteem, confidence and a sense of belonging that was missing from their families. Gangs were also viewed as a means of protection and as a source of excitement, power and drugs.

"The gang is my family."

"You have to protect yourself, do what you need to do to survive."

As with substance abuse, however, the positive consequences were overshadowed by a sense of entrapment. Some participants believed that they were forced into participating in a gang because their older family members and friends were already gang members. All participants agreed that once you were in gang, leaving was extremely difficult. Those who attempted to leave were assaulted and punished for such behaviour.

"It's hard because…I have family members in the gang…it is hard…"

"I have seen a lot of people commit suicide as a way out of the gang."

"Hard to get out of the gang, they will turn on you, stab you…"

"Have to relocate where you live if you don't want to be part of a gang…even then they will find you."

4.2 Life on the Inside (Present)

As with their experiences prior to incarceration, the participants in the Sharing Circles described common experiences inside custody facilities.

4.2.1 Custodial Staff

"I have been told by staff that I am a loser and a lowlife and some praise me and have hope for me."

The comments regarding custodial staff were both positive and negative. To many of the participants, it was often not the credentials of the staff members that were relevant to their experience. Rather, it was the personality of the individual who held the position that was important. Many participants also believed that their relationships with many staff lacked respect and fairness.

"Some of the staff have good personalities, make me laugh, make me feel good about myself."

"Staff seem to have no hope or trust in us, they keep on saying that we will be back right away. I feel like they are not trying to help me, they are just putting me down."

"…like going to bathroom, I ask three times and I don't get to go…I want to be respected for that, I don't want to have to wait and wait."

An overarching theme throughout the Sharing Circles was a lack of trust expressed by the participants. Most do not trust the system and do not trust the professionals within the system. Moreover, they fear that staff share personal information with others, even with a promise of confidentiality.

"It's a trust thing…"

"They write down everything, and it gets put on your file and everyone reads it and I don't want that getting around and everyone knowing my business."

4.2.2 Suicide

"When I tell staff how I am feeling they stick me in isolation…and sticking me in the hole makes me feel more depressed."

Suicidal thoughts, self-harm and attempted suicide were reported by participants as prevalent not only within custody but in their communities as well.

"It's hard to give people hope, that there is more to live for."

"Everyone knows some one who committed suicide."

Many participants in the Sharing Circles were critical towards the policies inside custody facilities that direct staff on how to deal with youth who reveal suicidal thoughts and feelings. According to the participants, if a youth indicates he is feeling suicidal to staff, he is immediately isolated in a holding cell, stripped of personal clothing and possessions, dressed in a gown, and observed every few minutes. Such practices appeared counterintuitive to the participants and clearly discouraged them from expressing suicidal thoughts. The system responded to their despondency with a practice that, in the eyes of the participants, punished them.

"There is no one you can talk to in this place without fear of them putting you in the hole."

"Most people are scared to say yes they are suicidal, because they don't want to go to the hole."

[13]These time-frames are somewhat artificial as the themes within them are not necessarily mutually exclusive to the specified period of time. The Sharing Circle participants continued to deal with issues such as substance abuse and youth gangs, for example, during their period of incarceration.

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