Ethnic minorities and indigenous peoples are disproportionately imprisoned in many countries, constituting up to 50% of national prison populations.
Data on imprisonment of indigenous peoples and members of national, ethnic, religious or linguistic minorities remains incomplete or unavailable. Many countries either do not collect, disaggregate or publish data on the number and other information regarding persons from indigenous and minority communities in prison. In countries where data is available, however, the body of evidence of systemic racism in criminal justice systems is overwhelming, with people from minority and indigenous communities constituting up to 50% of prison populations – and the rate of over-representation is growing in many jurisdictions. In many cases this is linked to over-policing, prosecution and criminalisation of their communities.
In Ireland, Travellers are signifcantly over-represented in prisons, making up 6% of people in prison, despite comprising only 0.7% of the general population. In comparison to their settled-majority counterparts, Traveller males are 5-11 times more likely to be imprisoned and Traveller females 18-22 times more likely.
In the US, the over-representation and discrimination of Black Americans in criminal justice systems continues at an alarming scale. The latest statistics on prison populations show that one in 81 Black adults is held in state prison. Furthermore, Latino people are imprisoned in state prisons at 1.3 times the rate of white people. In contrast, the proportion of American Indians and Alaska natives in US jails (pre-trial facilities) is decreasing, dropping by almost 35% between 2019 and 2020, although some of this is explained by a general reduction in jail population numbers due to the pandemic, with the imprisonment rate in 2020 having been the lowest since 1992.
Despite attracting attention for many years from both international and national advocates, indigenous peoples continue to make up large proportions of prison populations in several countries, including Mexico, New Zealand, Canada and Australia. In Australia, their proportion grew by 8% between 2020 and 2021, now representing 30% of the total number of people in prison, while only making up 3.3% of the general population. In Canada, indigenous people now represent 32% of the federal prison population (despite comprising 5% of the total population), representing a historic high, following an increase of 18% over the last decade. Over the same time span, the number of non-indigenous people in prison has decreased by 28%. The country’s federal corrections inspector reported this is due to the increased likelihood of indigenous people serving long sentences and being denied parole or conditional release. Indigenous women in Canada and New Zealand account for 48% and 60% respectively of all women in prison.
Indigenous women make up 60% of female prison populations in New Zealand, and 48% in Canada.
In Brazil, the Instituto das Irmãs da Santa Cruz estimates that the number of indigenous people in prison has increased by 40% between 2017 and 2019, reaching 1,080 people. According to another organisation, Conselho Indigenista Missionário, between November 2020 and January 2021, there were at least 1,229 indigenous people in prison in Brazil, which represents a 13% increase compared to 2019. In one state, Roraima, a particularly steep increase in imprisonment rates was reported; between 2018 and 2020 the number of indigenous people in prison in Roraima increased by 574%. This report also found that many people belonging to indigenous communities did not identify themselves as such, for fear of facing discrimination. A February 2022 report of the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues examined the significant over-representation of indigenous children in prisons, including in Australia and Canada, and called for concrete action and the development of traditional restorative justice systems in consultation with indigenous peoples.
Action is being stepped up at the UN to document and tackle the overrepresentation of people from minority and indigenous communities in prisons and criminal justice systems – an outcome of international condemnation following the killing and aftermath of George Floyd in 2020. A report in June 2021 issued by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights on racial justice and equality noted the disproportionate presence of Africans and people of African descent in prison populations, referencing reports from Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, Italy, Portugal, and the US. Another initiative has seen the establishment of a UN independent expert mechanism in 2021 to examine systemic racism, excessive use of force and human rights violations by law enforcement.
Ethnic minorities and indigenous people commonly face harsher treatment in prison compared to their white peers. A recent report detailed how Māori and Pacific women in New Zealand were disproportionately segregated in units used for control and punishment. In one women’s prison, up to 78% of segregations were of Māori women. As many as 93% of segregations lasting 15 days or longer (a period defined as ‘prolonged’ and prohibited by the UN Nelson Mandela Rules as a form of torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment) were of Māori or Pacific descent.