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OTTAWA (Reuters) - The number of aboriginals in Canadian prisons is rising at an alarming rate, and the prison service is not taking care of indigenous inmates properly, an official watchdog said on Thursday.
Howard Sapers, in charge of monitoring the Correctional Service of Canada, said in a special report that aboriginals made up 4 percent of Canada's population but 23 percent of inmates in federal jails.
The aboriginal population of Canada's prisons has grown by 43 percent in the last five years alone.
"Given these alarming and growing numbers, programs and options for the care, custody and treatment of aboriginal inmates must become a significant priority for the Correctional Service of Canada," Sapers said during a news conference.
"Despite years of efforts, things are not getting better," he added, noting there were "serious gaps between the law and practice" when it came to dealing with aboriginal inmates.
Many of Canada's 1.2 million aboriginals have to deal with high rates of unemployment, poor healthcare and substandard schools. In January, militant chiefs threatened to bring the economy to a halt unless the government did more to help.
Prison officials regularly failed to follow rules that require the social histories of indigenous prisoners to be taken into account when dealing with security and discipline.
Sapers said aboriginal offenders served disproportionately more of their sentence behind bars before first release, were more likely to return to prison on revocation of parole and were disproportionately involved in security incidents inside jails.
"If I were releasing a report card on aboriginal corrections today, it would be filled with failing grades," he said.
In response, federal Public Safety Minister Vic Toews did not mention any of the report's findings, saying instead that the right-of-center Conservative government was determined to fight crime.
The Association of First Nations, the main umbrella group for aboriginal bands, said investing more in education would help keep young indigenous people out of jail.
The New Democrats, Canada's official opposition party, said the report was "a shocking indictment" of how the federal government had failed aboriginal Canadians.
"This is an affront to Canada's domestic record on human rights," the party's aboriginal affairs spokeswoman Jean Crowder told reporters.
In Australia, another country with a significant aboriginal presence, indigenous people make up 2.5 percent of the population but 27 percent of prison inmates.
Reporting by David Ljunggren; editing by Sofina Mirza-Reid