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



4.2 Life on the Inside (Present) (cont'd)

4.2.3 Gender

"Boys get a better deal 'cause there are so many of them."

The male and female participants in the Sharing Circles provided similar comments on many of the themes contained in this report. One area that was clearly different, however, was the perception among female participants that males were provided with more opportunities simply because of their numbers. According to most female participants, the custody facilities that participated in the Sharing Circles provided access to more cultural programming and recreation for male youth compared to female youth.

"Boys get more free time…"

"There are no sweat lodges for the girls…."

4.2.4 Custody/Probation

"Probation is just an excuse to keep me in jail… It takes nothing to make a mistake…everyone has breaches, everyone is here for a breach."

While the Sharing Circle participants did not provide much information on custody as a specific disposition, they did perceive incarceration as a chance to improve their criminal skills through association with more experienced youth.

"Going to jail makes you a better criminal…"

There was agreement among participants that probation was not beneficial. In fact, they argued that probation was detrimental to their rehabilitation and increased the likelihood of returning to custody.

"Probation is a charge magnet."

"You come back here for stupid reasons."

Primarily, the conditions attached to probation orders were considered unrealistic, particularly curfews and those prohibiting drug and alcohol use and association with anti-social peers (those with a known criminal record). Most of the participants expressed a sense of futility, as almost everyone in their lives were either chemically-addicted or a known criminal.

"I am not used to being on curfew, and there are too many restrictions."

"Drugs conditions are the hardest, there is always going to be that time when you slip."

"You are told you can't talk to your clan…"

"I can't associate with known criminals, but everyone I know is a criminal."

4.3 Solutions (Future)

When asked what would be effective in assisting them in custody and upon reintegration, the Sharing Circle participants were consistent in their ideas and solutions.

4.3.1 Cultural Programming

"I would like to live with the aboriginal culture I was raised with."

There was a clear appetite amongst most participants for traditional Aboriginal programming that focused on culture and spirituality. The participants stated that having a clearer understanding of Aboriginal culture would be beneficial to their rehabilitation. Activities identified by the youth included sweat lodges, sharing circles, pow-wows, drumming, singing, dancing, horseback riding, cultural camps, smudging, and crafts. There was also an interest in learning Aboriginal languages and history from an Aboriginal perspective. Finally, many participants would like to be able to access Aboriginal elders more frequently.

"I would like more teachings, classes to tell me about the history, spiritual stuff, something to learn more about my culture."

"I am more happy and energetic and healthy…after a sweat lodge.'

Some participants, however, identified their substance abuse issue as a serious impediment to being able to actively participate in cultural programming. Many of the programs offered, according to some Sharing Circle participants, prohibit youth from participating if they are not alcohol- and drug-free. In addition, if a youth has been identified as a gang-member, he or she may also be prohibited from participation.

"A few times elders turned me down… because I was drunk or stoned…"

"Alcohol and that prevents me from getting involved in culture because native traditions are alcohol- and drug-free."

There was also concern expressed by some participants that programming is only easily accessible inside custody facilities. Once the participants are back in their communities, they do not always have the knowledge necessary to access community-based programs. The mentor concept mentioned in the next theme, wherein the youth are linked with an appropriate mentor upon release, was proposed as a possible solution to this problem.

"It's hard to go to the sweat lodge on the outside because I don't know who to contact to find out about this stuff."

4.3.2 Mentoring Program

"I would rather go somewhere to talk to someone that I can trust, the certificate or degree doesn't matter, I would rather someone who will understand."

As indicated, trust was particularly important among the Sharing Circle participants. In general, one-on-one programming was articulated as the preferred method of interaction within custodial programming. Many of the youth proposed a Mentoring Program to address the lack of trust they feel towards the system and to facilitate effective rehabilitation. One-on-one mentors who have experienced their reality, the youth argued, would be more beneficial than traditional interactions with custodial staff. It does not necessarily have to be a formal therapeutic relationship. It would be of value if there was someone from whom they could seek informal advice as well as someone that could spend leisure time with them.

"I feel that they don't have to be qualified, they just have to listen or understand the position that I am in, or even better, have gone through a similar thing."

"It would it be helpful to have a mentor or social worker, that you can go to if you need assistance with resumes, or even just someone to go to the movies with so you stay out of trouble."

"I would like to access a mentor…that volunteers…someone to be there for me…not because they are getting paid."

4.3.3 General Programming

"I want to change…"

In addition to enhanced cultural programming with easier access and a mentorship program, there were numerous other programming ideas offered by the Sharing Circle participants that, in their opinion, would promote rehabilitation.

  1. Conventional employment programming and apprenticeships (e.g., auto mechanics, aesthetics, culinary programs), as well as resume writing and interviewing techniques, which are designed to increase participants' employability and assist them in acquiring and maintaining employment;
  2. Recreational programming, including unstructured and structured sports and weight training;
  3. Intensive longer-term substance abuse programming for alcohol/drug addiction;
  4. Suicide prevention programming, with information on how to deal with the sudden death of friends and family members;
  5. Life skills programming with a focus on independent living (e.g., finding and maintaining housing, budgeting, cooking, cleaning, laundry, parenting ); and,
  6. Family intervention programming that involves not only the youth, but also his or her family directly, particularly in family situations with a high level of dysfunction (e.g., violence, substance abuse).

Several key concepts related to effective programming emerged during the Sharing Circles. First, according to some of the participants, programming needs to be widely available after release from custody. Second, there needs to be a transitional phase, wherein youth are offered an opportunity to gradually reintegrate back into society with an emphasis on continued support and programming. Third, the focus needs to be on families as a whole, rather than simply on the individual. Finally, youth on remand are often not eligible for programming but often spend substantial amounts of time in custody. It would be advantageous to offer programming for youth on remand, according to the participants, as many of them end up being sentenced to 'time served'.

"I wish there was more community support…"

"I would like a transition place…where when I get out I will be able to do programs, get recreation and life skills for free…where I will be able to make a better life."

"Need to get help into the family, instead of sticking me back into a dysfunctional family."

"Remand youth are treated like the bottom of the barrel…"

4.3.4 Community Service

"Community service…do the hours and you are done, nothing hanging over your head."

Many of the Sharing Circle participants proposed 'community service' as an alternative to probation and custody. The main rationale put forward was that it would be a simple and relatively brief sentence without a series of onerous conditions. According to participants, it also has the potential of providing them with a sense that they have 'given back' to their community. Finally, it also was noted by some of the participants that community service may provide valuable employment skills and experience.

"…I would rather do community work, it makes you stronger anyway, gives you job experience."

"…should be able to just do community service and give back to the community."

4.4 Questions for Future Research

The data from the Sharing Circles raised several important questions for future research.

  1. Is it difficult for Aboriginal youth to voluntarily leave an organised gang? If so, how can the youth criminal justice system assist youth in leaving organized gangs?
  2. Are current institutional policies that delineate suicide prevention practices ineffective? If so, how can custodial staff better deal with Aboriginal youth in custody who reveal suicidal thoughts?
  3. Are custody programming resources allocated unfairly towards Aboriginal male youth compared to Aboriginal female youth?
  4. How can the youth criminal justice system better respond to Aboriginal youth to minimise the number of administration of justice offences (e.g., breach of probation)?
  5. How would the programming solutions identified by the Sharing Circle participants effect rehabilitation?
    1. enhanced cultural programming?
    2. Mentoring programs?
    3. continuing programming in the community?
    4. family intervention?
  6. Is community service an effective youth criminal justice system response for Aboriginal youth? If so, in what circumstances?
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