Indigenous women, transgender and Two Spirit people need support when leaving prison

By Tenzin Butsang and Karen Lawford

We’re all aware of how the COVID-19 pandemic is affecting our health and wellness — but why isn’t more attention being paid to the relationship between COVID-19 and the criminal justice system, specifically how it’s impacting Indigenous women, transgender and Two-Spirit people.

The start of the pandemic came with the release of more than 2,300 people from jails across Ontario. Since then, numerous front-line workers and community organizations have called upon the Ontario government to ensure that the people being released have co-ordinated plans and supports in place.

Unfortunately, the government continues to neglect those calls, inadvertently placing all released inmates at risk of COVID-19 infection, exploitation and even death.

Kevin Walby, an associate professor of criminal justice at the University of Winnipeg, said it’s like the provincial government just “gave up” when it comes to protecting the health of inmates and the broader population.

A failure to follow through

We have witnessed how the Ontario government has failed to follow through on their promises to end violence against Indigenous people.

As a doctoral student who has volunteered with women and youth in and out of prisons, and an Anishinaabe midwife and assistant professor, we have heard first-hand how dire this crisis is. Staff at Thunder Woman Healing Lodge Society have told us that they’ve waited more than eight hours for women scheduled to be released from the Vanier Centre for Women in Milton, Ont., and that some were released as late as 10:30 p.m. with no access to transportation or accommodation.

The 2019 National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls (MMIWG) highlighted how Indigenous women, girls and 2SLGBTQQIA people leaving prison can become entrapped in a cycle of incarceration. They are often victimized by traffickers who use the prison system to target, lure and exploit those who don’t have access to housing or transportation.

Despite the province’s 2020 commitment to respond to the national inquiry’s Calls for Justice, it continues to release Indigenous women into precarious situations without resources for a safe passage to their families or communities.

To release anyone, particularly Indigenous women, transgender, and Two-Spirit individuals this way is irresponsible, dangerous and does not demonstrate a commitment to reconciliation.

Doing nothing has consequences

One tragic example of the consequences of these systemic failures is the death of Kimberly Squirrel. On Jan. 23, 2021, Squirrel was found frozen to death in Saskatoon just three days after being released from a provincial correctional facility; no one in her family was notified of her release and her death was entirely preventable.

Indigenous transgender and Two-Spirit people have long experienced sexist, transphobic and racist discrimination at the hands of the Canadian prison system. The disproportionate social and economic impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on transgender and Two-Spirit communities further highlights the importance of providing supports upon release.

It is only a matter of time before someone else is harmed — or even killed — as a direct result of the provincial government’s inefficiency and disregard for implementing appropriate measures for the safe release of Indigenous women, transgender and Two-Spirit people.

Enough is enough

The urgency of these issues is further underscored by COVID-19 and its disproportionate impact on Indigenous communities. Without re-entry plans, adequate safety measures and communication in place, individuals are released into precarious circumstances. Without access to accommodation or transportation, they may be unable to safely self-isolate to prevent the spread of the virus.

In an open letter to the Ministry of the Solicitor General, we — as part of a collective of community members, Elders, Healers, front-line workers, researchers, educators and students who advocate for the rights of Indigenous Peoples in the Canadian criminal justice system — have called upon the Ontario government to:

  1. Develop and release re-entry plans for all inmates, including provisions for adequate financial and transitional supports.
  2. Publicly release current policies and measures in place for the safe release of all — including Indigenous women, transgender and Two-Spirit people.
  3. Publicly release COVID-19 safety measures for individuals prior to and upon release from correctional institutions.

Against the advice of public health experts and advocates, Ontario continues to incarcerate people at an alarming rate. Provincial and federal governments must be held accountable for the harms that their inaction and blatant maleficence has caused.

Indigenous women, transgender and Two-Spirit people deserve to be treated with respect — both inside and outside of prison.

We offer our most sincere condolences to the family and friends of Kimberly Squirrel.

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