Politics

Ottawa to study sexual violence in prisons for 1st time in years

For the first time in nearly 30 years, the federal government will study the prevalence of sexual violence in Canadian prisons.

Correctional Services Canada (CSC) issued a tender today for research into how often inmates are victimized sexually, who’s at highest risk, and how the violence can be stopped.

The tender is a response to a 2020 report by the Office of the Correctional Investigator (OCI) that found “sexual violence is a pervasive but underreported problem in federal prisons,” said Ivan Zinger, head of the OCI, in October 2020.

CSC is looking for a sample size of 8,200 to 8,400 current and former inmates.

The study should be finished in March 2024, nearly four years after Zinger presented his report to former Public Safety minister Bill Blair, who’s now minister of Emergency Preparedness and president of the Queen’s Privy Council.

In an interview with iPolitics on Tuesday, Zinger said he’s “encouraged that (CSC) is doing the work, (but) it’s certainly not a timely response, given the seriousness of the findings” in the report.

While the report was made public in October 2020, Zinger presented it to the minister in June 2020, Zinger said, adding that he’s met with the new Public Safety minister, Marco Mendicino, to discuss it.

In the 2020 report, Zinger recommended legislative reform and better data collection, among other measures.

Zinger told iPolitics that CSC gave him a copy of a policy document that includes several ways the department plans to remedy the problems raised in the report.

He said he was pleased to see the document, but questioned why it came before the problem was properly studied.

“Typically, you do the prevalence study, then develop the policy to respond to the problems you’ve identified, so I find that a bit backwards,” he said, adding that he wasn’t consulted about the tender.

“We weren’t even alerted that this was coming,” he said. “That’s a bit disappointing, because when the (tender) makes clear reference to the work that we’ve done, and our findings and recommendations, we would have certainly liked to see it, and maybe provide some comments.”

The last time Ottawa undertook such a study was in 1995, the tender notes. It surveyed nearly 4,300 inmates, all of them male.

The study reported that three per cent of inmates had experienced sexual violence, while six per cent had been sexually coerced, which can include psychological pressure, threats, and intimidation.

This study is now outdated, and did not cover the prevalence of different types of sexual victimization by other inmates and/or staff, and did not examine different groups who have been found to experience higher rates of sexual coercion and violence while incarcerated,” the CSC tender reads. 

The U.S. has more recent data, which it collected via the National Inmate Survey.

The most recent report, which came out in 2012, surveyed more than 100,000 current and former inmates. It found that about four per cent of them reported “experiencing one or more incidents of sexual victimization by another inmate or facility staff in the past 12 months, including sexual assault and abusive sexual contacts.” 

Female inmates were more likely to report inmate-on-inmate sexual victimization in prison and jails, whereas males were more likely to report staff-on-inmate sexual victimization in jails only,” it found. 

Jails are generally used for shorter sentences, whereas prisons are for sentences of more than one year.

Gender-diverse and LGBTQ+ inmates were also more likely to be victimized sexually.

But the violence is probably more prevalent than reported, the study notes, because “confined inmates may hesitate to disclose sexual victimization due to fear of retaliation from inmates or staff, or they might be following a code of silence common to prison culture.”

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