While Black women make up just 2.6 per cent of the female population in Canada, they comprise almost 10 per cent of the federally sentenced female population. Over the last ten years, the number of federally sentenced Black Canadians has risen by 50 per cent.
In their report, “Cruel, Inhuman and Degrading? Canada’s treatment of federally-sentenced women with mental health issues,” Elizabeth Bingham and Rebecca Sutton of the University of Toronto’s International Human Rights Program detail Canada’s failure to promote and protect the rights of federally sentenced Black women. These include the right to security of the person; access to justice; freedom from cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment; equality and non-discrimination; the right to health; and the right to information.
One of the principal challenges is the lack of understanding regarding the mental health needs of the Black prison population—especially among women. This knowledge deficit, exacerbated by discrimination of women and visible minorities, is a significant barrier to providing appropriate and consistent mental health treatment to Black women.
By contrast, the United Kingdom has made remarkable progress in developing research and policy designed for incarcerated Black inmates. The Office of National Statistics assesses mental health needs of incarcerated men and women of Afro-Caribbean descent.
The United Kingdom has also taken the important step of recognizing cultural diversity within its Black prison population. Various reports differentiate between inmates of Afro-Caribbean descent and those with permanent residency from Africa or the Caribbean. Canadian statistics treat federally-sentenced Black inmates as a homogenous group, which limits the extent to which policy-makers and mental health providers can consider cultural background in developing mental health treatment alternatives.
Furthermore, studies in the United Kingdom also pay particular attention to the mental health needs of Black female inmates. These studies have shown that Black female prisoners are more likely to require mental healthcare treatment than other women. Accordingly, there has been a push toward better mental health services for this significant population in British prisons.
Finally, the United Kingdom has developed a role for communities themselves to play in providing mental health care for the Afro-Caribbean population. The National Association for the Care and Resettlement of Offenders (NACRO) reports on an alternative service that diverts Afro-Caribbeans with mental health issues from psychiatric hospitals to community settings as a first point of contact at the advent of their mental health assessment. This initiative led to a significant decrease in the number of Afro-Caribbeans admitted into psychiatric hospitals.
As Canada develops its own policy response to challenges in providing mental health treatment to the growing Black population in its correctional systems, it can learn from the best practices of other jurisdictions, like the United Kingdom. Promoting and protecting the rights of federally sentenced women is essential to guaranteeing the safety and well-being of all Canadians.