Racialized prisoners in Canada get fewer chances at parole than white prisoners. A Globe analysis investigates the disparity

Racialized prisoners in Canada get fewer chances at parole than white prisoners. A Globe analysis investigates the disparity

Renford Farrier should have left prison a long time ago.

He was just 19 when he shot and killed Dwight Kelly, part of a long-running string of violence in Toronto’s north end. After Mr. Farrier pleaded guilty to second-degree murder – a life sentence – the judge, in an act of clemency, decreed he’d be eligible for parole in just 10 years, the shortest possible period for someone doing time for murder. If he could turn things around, he recalls the judge saying, he’d be out in a decade and could lead a productive life.

Thirty years later, he’s still incarcerated.

According to correctional files, his poor risk scores and selling of contraband are partly to blame. But Mr. Farrier, now 50 years old, has a different theory as to why he’s still locked up. It’s the colour of his skin.

“I’ve never had a case officer that looked like me,” says Mr. Farrier, who is Black. “I’ve never had a parole officer that looked like me. I’ve never been to the Parole Board and had anyone there look like me.”

Only a tiny percentage of people in federal custody are kept in prison right up until their sentences expire – or, in the case of lifers like Mr. Farrier, so far past when they became eligible for parole. Instead, most leave prison through one of three forms of conditional release: day parole, full parole and statutory release. People on day parole often serve out their sentences at a halfway house, where they’re required to check in each evening, while those on full parole can live on their own. Statutory release works a bit differently: By law, nearly all non-life prisoners who have reached the two-thirds mark of their sentence have to be released back into the community to complete the remainder of their sentence, with varying levels of restrictions.

This conditional release system, the final step in virtually all prisoners’ staggered return to society, works like sentencing, except in reverse: A prisoner appears before the Parole Board of Canada, which decides whether to grant a release. Implicit in that process is the assumption that release decisions are fair, and that each person’s case is weighed on its own merits.

For decades, experts have warned that race plays a significant part in someone’s odds of being released, but the evidence has always been anecdotal. Now, a Globe and Mail investigation has quantified that impact.

An analysis of seven years of federal prison data has found that Indigenous, Black and other racialized men are 26 per cent, 24 per cent and 20 per cent less likely than their white peers to be paroled in the first year they’re eligible – even after controlling for their age, sentence length, offence severity, the year they were first eligible for community release and the risk assessment scores that estimate their likelihood of reintegrating into society. (Due to the limitations in the data obtained by The Globe, the analysis excluded women and people serving life sentences.)

When it comes to parole, in other words, you’re better off being white.

An Ontario prison officer wears a Correctional Service Canada shoulder patch.Lars Hagberg/The Canadian Press

To explain the discrepancy, experts interviewed by The Globe all pointed to the same place: the Correctional Service of Canada (CSC) itself, which manages everyone serving a sentence of two years or longer and assigns prisoners a curriculum of mandatory treatment programs meant to rehabilitate them ahead of their release.

At each step of the incarceration process, beginning with the moment a person is sentenced and continuing through to their entry into a prison, the odds are notched further and further against racialized people. Risk scores, progress reports and the various other files CSC generates all add up: By the time prisoners arrive at the Parole Board of Canada, experts say, the deck has already been stacked.

The findings follow a Globe investigation in 2020 that showed CSC’s risk assessment tools – standardized tests designed to measure a prisoner’s risk to public safety and odds of reoffending – were systemically biased against Black men, Indigenous men and Indigenous women. In the wake of the report, the House of Commons public safety committee announced a study into systemic bias in prison risk scores, and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau vowed to do more to address systemic inequities in prison. Last year, a proposed class-action lawsuit over risk scores was filed against the federal government on behalf of tens of thousands of prisoners.

Sarah Turnbull, a professor of sociology and legal studies at the University of Waterloo who has studied the federal parole system, says The Globe’s findings “reflect systemic and institutional racism” in the parole process, which she says is “based on fundamental inequality.”

According to Dr. Turnbull, race has always played a role in release decisions.

“These are issues that were coming up in the 1980s,” she says. “These things have been going on for a really long time. The institutions have known about it.”

Differences in parole outcomes have lingered in part, she says, because the conditional release system is far less scrutinized than policing, sentencing or incarceration. “It’s a hidden, less sexy part of the criminal justice system,” Dr. Turnbull says. Though the government has long known about these disparities, parole has received much less attention, leading to fewer attempts at policy change. The prison system, she says, “can’t really figure out what to do with racialized people.”

In an e-mailed statement, CSC spokesperson Pierre Deveau said that “a number of considerations go into release decision-making, with public safety being the paramount consideration.”

The agency has instituted anti-racism training policies, he said, and CSC is currently testing an assessment that would specifically take into account Black prisoners’ experiences and cultural background as their case is being managed. The agency also signed an agreement in 2019 with the University of Regina to develop “Indigenous-informed risk assessment” tools. This project “involves seeking the input of Indigenous peoples through extensive consultation,” said a second CSC spokesperson, Esther Mailhot.

“There is important work underway,” Mr. Deveau said. “We recognize there is more work to do and remain committed to this as we support offenders in their safe reintegration into our communities as law-abiding citizens.”

Iulia Pescarus Popa, a spokesperson for the Parole Board of Canada, told The Globe in an e-mail that all release decisions “follow a thorough risk assessment of the offender’s risk to reoffend,” and that the Board is “committed to bias-free and evidence-based decision-making.”

The Board is currently reviewing its decision-making policies, she said, a process the organization expects to complete in the fall. That review will include “consideration of additional guidance related to specific groups of offenders.” Ms. Pescarus Popa did not specify what kind of guidance the Board is considering.

How race affects parole

To illustrate how race distorts a person’s odds of being paroled, The Globe has constructed a theoretical prisoner and run them through our statistical models, which allows us to see how often someone with a given profile would be released. In this case, we are looking at a 29-year-old man applying for parole in 2018, as soon as he is eligible. He has a “medium” reintegration potential score, and is serving a three-and-a-half year sentence for a medium-severity offence. We’ll make this theoretical prisoner white, test whether or not he will be paroled 1,000 times, then compare those rates to racialized prisoners with identical sentences, offences and reintegration scores – the only difference is their race.

A white person with this profile had around a 40{a73b23072a465f6dd23983c09830ffe2a8245d9af5d9bd9adefc850bb6dffe13} chance of serving his sentence in the community the first year he was eligible.

Blue dots represent people who would be able to serve in the community in their first year of eligibility.

The data show a prisoner has a lower chance of being paroled for the remainder of their sentence if we re-run the simulation changing only a single variable: their race.

A Black person, meanwhile, had a 31{a73b23072a465f6dd23983c09830ffe2a8245d9af5d9bd9adefc850bb6dffe13} chance – lower than their white equivalent.

Red dots represent people who would have served in the community had they been white.

An Indigenous person had a 30{a73b23072a465f6dd23983c09830ffe2a8245d9af5d9bd9adefc850bb6dffe13} chance – also lower than their white equivalent.

Other racialized people had a 32{a73b23072a465f6dd23983c09830ffe2a8245d9af5d9bd9adefc850bb6dffe13} chance of getting paroled. The fact that they are less likely to be released – even though they have better post-release outcomes than white people – stands in contrast to their extraordinarily low risk.

Jeremy Agius / The Globe and Mail

Most prisoners first become eligible for parole just short of the one-third mark of their sentence; lifers aren’t eligible for full parole until their ineligibility period expires.

Roughly 40 per cent of white people in their first year of parole eligibility were already serving their sentence in the community. The Globe’s analysis of CSC data – obtained through a freedom of information request and spanning from 2012 to 2018 – found that for many racialized prisoners, those rates are far lower: 32 per cent of Black people were out in the community in their first eligible year, while Indigenous people were out just 21 per cent of the time.

These differences in parole rates are made all the clearer by controlling, as The Globe has done, for the many factors Parole Board members consider during their determinations. Once those have been taken into account, the figures show Black and Indigenous men serving a non-life sentence are clearly less likely to be released in their first eligible year than white men.

Meanwhile, other racialized people, such as those with a Southeast Asian, South Asian, Middle Eastern or Latino background, actually saw better first-year release figures than white people, with 42 per cent in the community in the first year they were eligible. Seven years of CSC data show they tend to receive very favourable reintegration potential scores, and that they federally reoffended almost half as often as their white counterparts. The fact they are less likely to be paroled in their first year of eligibility after controlling for factors such as risk scores and sentence lengths suggests that, if anything, their first-year release rates could be even higher.

Even once prisoners are on conditional release, forms of supervision differ between racialized and white people. CSC data show that in early 2018, half of all white prisoners serving their sentences on the outside were on full parole – much more frequently than Black people (41 per cent) and Indigenous people (29 per cent). Black and Indigenous people in the community instead had higher statutory release rates, meaning they’d been held until the two-thirds mark of their sentence.

As a lifer, Renford Farrier couldn’t count on statutory release. Instead, he’d need to be paroled out.

After a decade inside, he was finally eligible. But as the years ticked away, the weight of his background came into sharp focus. “White folk and Black folk – we grow up differently,” Mr. Farrier says, speaking on the phone from the medium-security Springhill Institution in Nova Scotia. “These things aren’t being considered. You’re judging Black kids, most of them of Caribbean descent, and you’re trying to have white, middle-class individuals relate to their experience, relate to why they are the way they are. It’s not possible. If I was a white dude, they would’ve tried to help me.”

The medium-security Springhill Institution in Nova Scotia.Darren Calabrese/The Globe and Mail

Expressions of remorse, which prisoners say they’re expected to offer up if they ever hope to get paroled, are also tinged by cultural context, Mr. Farrier says. Take communication: Black prisoners engage with their correctional officers differently than white prisoners do, and those differences can lead to negative assumptions. “Because I’m not crying, I’m not showing remorse. I have no empathy. I’m in denial. I’m competitive. I’m anti-authority – all negative adjectives,” Mr. Farrier says. “No! I am 100-per-cent remorseful. I took someone away from their kids. A mother had to bury her son.”

Mr. Farrier’s parole odds have often felt insurmountable. He’s had four hearings and has lost each one. At his most recent hearing, late in 2017, he figured he’d finally gotten his break.

After nearly 25 years of incarceration, Mr. Farrier’s files struck a positive tone. There had been a marked change in his behaviour, they said, and he’d completed all his required programming. Better yet, he’d just been reclassified from maximum to medium security.

Mr. Farrier, who is Muslim, also had support beyond bars. He would be an asset to the local community centre, an imam from Montreal told the panel. The board still denied him, citing his involvement in “prison subculture” – including the fact that he had been selling contraband inside the prison. “It’s true,” Mr. Farrier readily admits. “I introduced contraband into the jail.” It was a survival mechanism, he explains, a way of making enough money to afford food from the canteen or new shoes through the purchasing catalogue. (Since his move from his prior facility in Quebec to Springhill Institution in 2020, Mr. Farrier says he is no longer in the contraband business.)

“One hundred per cent I was breaking institutional rules,” he says. “I just don’t believe I should be in here 20 years past my eligibility.”

Illustration of hands grasping bars

Bias behind bars: A Globe investigation

Federal prisoners’ risk assessments determine everything from where a person is incarcerated to what rehabilitation programs they are offered. Black and Indigenous prisoners are more likely to get worse scores than their white peers, The Globe found.

Montreal-based prison lawyer Nora Demnati says her racialized clients are often at a disadvantage when trying to get paroled. In part, this is because of the communities some prisoners hail from and hope to be released back to: poorer neighbourhoods, possibly with higher crime rates, which the Parole Board fears will increase the applicant’s odds of reoffending.

If you’re Indigenous or Black, for instance, a plan to return to your former predominantly Black or Indigenous community could hurt your odds of release. Instead, you might be expected to cut those ties and start anew somewhere else – a punishing experience. Yet, those same support systems and connections are among the most important factors in a person’s successful rehabilitation.

The very mechanism of parole hearings also works against racialized people, she says. “During a criminal trial, you don’t say anything, and you let the Crown make their case,” Ms. Demnati explains. “At the Parole Board, it’s the opposite: You have to talk, you have to answer the Board’s questions with more than a yes or a no. You have people who have this intrinsic mistrust of the system, and you’re asking them to open up freely, gratuitously, to the Parole Board. It’s very difficult for them to do so.”

Prisoners usually make their case to two-person panels, but panelists seldom reflect the background of racialized prisoners. Of the 78 full- and part-time board members working in late January, 2022, 13 per cent identified as Indigenous, and another 13 per cent belonged to a “visible minority,” according to figures shared by the Parole Board of Canada.

Combined, this means racialized members accounted for 26 per cent of the total – yet, in 2019, nearly 46 per cent of people in federal prison belonged to a racialized group, according to data from Public Safety Canada.

Prospective Parole Board members go through an application process that includes an extensive initial submission, a background check, a written test and an interview. While applicants’ employment backgrounds vary significantly, they’ve often had direct experience with the justice system. For years, retired police officers were frequently appointed to the board’s Ontario arm.

Prisoners are often discouraged from applying for parole in the first place, Ms. Demnati says, or warned by case managers that CSC won’t endorse their release. The Parole Board is usually deferential to CSC’s recommendations, meaning those who head to a hearing without their parole officer’s support likely won’t succeed. Data from 2010 – some of the scant publicly available information on the topic – show that in nine out of 10 full parole decisions, the Parole Board agreed with CSC’s recommendations. (It’s extraordinarily rare for the Parole Board to order a release when CSC has recommended against it. In 2010, it happened in only one of every 40 full parole decisions.)

“It’s really easy to see how racialized people inside are not convinced they have a fair chance in front of the Board,” Ms. Demnati says.

According to Simon Borys, a prison lawyer practising in Kingston, biases in parole start building long before a prisoner ever files their application. They’re introduced, he says, through their correctional records: files such as program completion reports, parole officer updates, psychological evaluations and risk assessments. “It’s already baked into that person’s correctional documents that the board reads,” he says, “which sets the stage for the hearing, which paints the picture of this person to the Board before they ever see them.”

Risk assessments, for instance, are used by CSC parole officers to help determine which prison someone will go to, the kinds of jobs they get and the types of treatment programs available to them. One risk tool, the “reintegration potential” score, is specifically meant to capture a person’s likelihood of successfully reintegrating by accounting for their criminal history, security risk and capacity for change – yet white people in their first year of parole eligibility are more likely to be out in the community than racialized people regardless of their score.

White prisoners with a “high” reintegration score were out roughly 75 per cent of the time, according to The Globe’s analysis, but Black people with the same score were out 67 per cent of the time. Meanwhile, those with a “medium” score were out 31 per cent of the time, compared with 21 per cent of Black people – despite the fact they federally reoffended at lower rates than white people.

Ultimately, parole decisions are all about risk. But CSC’s reintegration potential scores are biased themselves, as revealed by a 2020 Globe and Mail investigation that found racialized prisoners were more likely to receive the worst possible scores than their white counterparts. By relying on risk assessments, parole decisions inherit those biases.

Prisoners living in the community

during their first year of eligibility,

by reintegration score

Compared against baseline for white prisoners



Prisoners living in the community

during their first year of eligibility,

by reintegration score

Compared against the baseline for white prisoners



Prisoners living in the community during their first year of eligibility, by reintegration score

Compared against the baseline for white prisoners


Community assessments are another place bias seeps in, Mr. Borys adds. Ahead of a hearing, CSC is responsible for contacting halfway houses and police, often in a parolee’s home community, to arrange for lodging if the prisoner’s application succeeds. But if they hail from an impoverished or high-crime area, or if the police decide they wouldn’t be comfortable having them re-enter that community, the report may be unfavourable. CSC’s own policies also allow the agency to forgo preparing a community assessment for people with low reintegration scores – but without one, the Board can’t grant parole.

The biases already cemented in prisoners’ correctional files, further compounded by community assessments, are often enough to tie the Parole Board’s hands, Mr. Borys says. In the end, CSC’s parole officers – responsible for preparing prisoners for release – end up serving as gatekeepers. “[The Board’s] job is just to assess risk based on the information before them. When that information is already subtly – or sometimes not-so-subtly – slanted against the inmate for racial reasons, the Board still has to take the evidence before them,” he says. “They have to go with what they have.”

With such a constellation of issues surrounding parole, including the bias identified by The Globe, Mr. Borys struggles with whether the system can ever be made fair – a feeling echoed by Ms. Demnati and Dr. Turnbull. “I don’t know,” he says with a sigh. “Maybe the answer is that they can’t fix these problems.”

He still has some suggestions, however. To start, Mr. Borys says CSC should do away with its directive allowing officers to skip preparing a community assessment for people with low reintegration scores. He and Ms. Demnati both also say the Parole Board should be required to take a person’s social and cultural background into account when making release decisions. This mechanism would be similar to a process sometimes used when an Indigenous person is found guilty of a crime, in which a report is prepared documenting their life history, trauma and the mitigating factors specific to being Indigenous in Canada. This file – called a Gladue report – is then taken into consideration by the judge at sentencing.

“There’s an opportunity for Parliament to step in,” Mr. Borys says.

Other solutions could involve shoring up funding for halfway houses (which would give prisoners more possible destinations when they’re applying for release); creating specialized prison treatment programs for racialized people that would better prepare them for release; and addressing the racial biases in the risk scores that factor into parole decisions.

But Mr. Borys, Ms. Demnati and Dr. Turnbull all agree it’s not enough to simply tweak the parole system to accommodate cultural differences.

One answer may lie in the past. In 1987, the Canadian Sentencing Commission – a nine-member federal task force that included six judges – recommended a package of reforms around sentencing, including conditional release, that were never adopted. Their solution was simple: Abolish discretionary parole.

The current system, where the Parole Board rules on a person’s release, is too unpredictable, the commission said. “[Parole] release transfers sentencing decisions from the judge to the parole board,” the report said, adding presciently: “These tendencies may result in unwarranted disparities in time served.”

Commissioners argued all non-lifers should be let out after serving some fixed fraction of their sentence, much like the current statutory release system in effect today, which requires most people be released when they’ve reached two-thirds of their sentence.

Otherwise, under the current system, someone serving a three-year sentence could get out after just six months (if they’re granted day parole), or after the full three years (if they’re held back until their sentence is complete), says University of Toronto criminologist Anthony Doob, who sat on the Sentencing Commission in the 1980s. “That seems kind of crazy to me.”

“The white, privileged person in their 30s who does something bad is going to tend to get out a lot sooner than a Black person in their 20s who is not privileged and who did the exact same thing,” he says. “To some extent, the system says, ‘That’s just fine, thank you.’”

The parole system’s focus on anticipating future criminality, Dr. Doob says, is ultimately unfair to prisoners. “The law is saying that at the time of release, we’re supposed to be looking at what they’re doing to society in the future,” Dr. Doob continues. “When you say that, you’re saying we’re going to punish people for what they haven’t yet done.”

Instead, he says, the amount of time Mr. Farrier has spent without parole is all about how he’s responded to imprisonment – an issue faced by lifers and non-lifers alike.

Mr. Farrier himself struggles to understand why he’s still inside. He spent much of the early 2000s in maximum security and recognizes the long-lasting impact of his past involvement in the contraband trade. But he insists he’s made good progress and is ready to serve his sentence outside a prison. Yet, in 2017, the Parole Board directly referenced his long imprisonment as a reason for denying him parole, saying community release would be “premature at this point, given the length of your incarceration.”

“The risk issue is known at sentencing,” says Dr. Doob, who still endorses the Sentencing Commission’s recommendations three decades later – though he cautions that abolishing parole could only work in conjunction with significant changes to sentencing, as the commission recommended in the 1980s. “If we’re trying to give people sentences that are proportional to the harm they did to society,” he says, “then let’s do it.”

Mr. Farrier says he plans to get out of prison and make a life for himself in Nova Scotia.Darren Calabrese/The Globe and Mail

After his most recent defeat at the Parole Board four years ago, Mr. Farrier adopted a radical new strategy – his transfer to Springhill Institution, in Nova Scotia. This was his final gambit: By moving out east, Mr. Farrier cut himself off from both his friends on the outside and from his former prison associates. His hope was that it would prevent him from getting involved in the illicit aspects of prison life – eliminating the Parole Board’s most recent reason for his denial.

Today, Mr. Farrier has a step-by-step plan to get out of prison and carve a place for himself in Nova Scotia, where he hopes to find work helping others struggling to navigate the prison system. For the very first time, he has a Black parole officer. He recently got his GED, and is now licensed to drive a forklift. His behaviour has been exemplary, he says. He lives in a “responsibility unit” within the prison, where he cooks his own food and does his own laundry. (During a recent call, he stepped away from the phone for five minutes to give dinner to an elderly prisoner – fish, rice and steamed vegetables that he’d cooked himself.)

He hopes to soon venture beyond the walls of Springhill for a day pass, escorted by a prison officer, to attend a nearby mosque. Mr. Farrier also aims to move to a minimum security facility, ahead of what he hopes will be his final parole hearing in December.

Despite his past three decades in prison – and the life plans he’s been forced to abandon several times over – Mr. Farrier still yearns for freedom. “Just give me an opportunity to be in society,” he says, his voice rising over the phone line. “If anybody really believes that after 30-plus years I’m going to commit a crime and end up back in prison, you’ve lost your freaking mind!”

Until his next parole hearing, Mr. Farrier is stuck in a staring contest with CSC and the Parole Board. “I lost my 20s here,” he says, speaking softly once again. “I lost my 30s here. I lost my 40s here.”

“How much more am I supposed to lose?”

Methodology: How we found bias in parole decisions

To calculate a prisoner’s odds of being paroled in their first year of eligibility, The Globe relied on a seven-year dataset spanning from 2012 to 2018. The data, obtained from Correctional Service Canada (CSC) through a freedom of information request, chronicled the lives of more than 50,000 prisoners, including their demographic information and parole status.

The data were filtered down to identify only people who were serving non-life sentences, then filtered further for people who had just entered their parole eligibility period for the first time. Given the small number of women in our data, we excluded them from the analysis. In all, we were left with 9,759 data points – each a male prisoner in their first year of parole eligibility.

Our analysis relied on a statistical modelling technique known as logistic regression. The model we developed looked at the impact of several variables on the odds of a prisoner being released into the community: their race, age, sentence length, reintegration potential score (a risk rating, assigned by CSC, designed to quantify how likely a person is to successfully reintegrate), their most severe offence and the year they first became eligible for parole. (For an in-depth explanation of how logistic regression works, and on how The Globe prepared the Correctional Service of Canada’s dataset for its analyses on race disparities in prison, see this story.)

As with any analysis, our model comes with a few caveats. Most important is the fact that the data CSC provided only gives us a snapshot of each prisoner on March 31 of a given year, meaning we can’t know the exact date when someone was admitted to prison or first became eligible for parole. This means the analysis may have looked at some prisoners who had only been eligible for parole for one month, while others may have been eligible for much longer. However, the analysis still points to a discrepancy in how people are paroled during the early days of their eligibility.

Bias behind bars: More from The Globe and Mail
The Decibel

After three decades in prison, Renford Farrier believes racism has been a big reason why he has so far been denied parole. On this episode of The Decibel, listen to excerpts from his conversations with investigative journalist Tom Cardoso. Subscribe for more episodes.

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For Indigenous women, systemic racial bias in prison leaves many worse off than men

Inmate risk assessment tool still in use 16 years after report raises concerns about bias against women


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