Who’s in jail in Canada?

A report came out today on CBC that the federal government is taking a page from the PQ book of secularism and will be removing funding from all chaplains in prisons… except Christian ones.

But rather than focus on the obvious affront to the separation of Church and State, I want to focus on the numbers shared in the CBC article.

Initially, they had screwed up their accounting, and neglected Canada’s non-religious population, prompting me to comment that there’s apparently no atheists in Canadian jails (either we’re more moral or just good at not getting caught). They’ve since updated the numbers, which I’m pretty sure are based on the Offender Count by Religion on the Offender Management System from April 2005.

Unfortunately, we don’t have census data from 2005 (or even the religious data from 2011), but we do have an extrapolation to 2006, based on the 2001 census.

So, who’s in prison and who isn’t?

Catholics are almost right on target, with 42% of the prison population compared to 43% of the general population.

Protestants are underrepresented, with 21% of the prison population compared to 28% of the public.

Muslims are over represented at 3.5% of the prison population compared to 2.7% of the public. This may be a case where the immigration was higher than expected, and the prediction was off, an off count based on statistics of small numbers (there were 761 Muslims in jail) or it may be a first sign of something else (a discriminatory justice system or something else?).

Both Jews and Sikhs make up similar portions of the prison and public populations. 0.7% and 0.5% of the prison population and 1.1% and 1.2% of the public respectively.

Buddhists make up 1.8% of the prison population but only 1.1% of the public.

Finally, we have some less useful numbers. The remaining prison numbers are divided into “Other” and “No Religion.” This would be okay, except others “include the following faith traditions: Agnostic, Atheist, Baha’I, Christian Science, Hinduism, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, Rastafarianism, Scientology, Siddha Yoga, Taoism, Wicca and Zoroastrianism.” Yep, they group atheists, Mormons, Scientologists, and Wiccans together.

Nevertheless, 6.6% of the prison population declares “other” and 19.7% declared no religion. This compares to a predicted 17.5% non-religious population from Statistics Canada. These numbers suggest there are more atheists in jail in Canada than in the public (the opposite of trends found in the US where 11% of the prison population is non-religious, compared to 15-35% of the public).

So are Canadian atheists and non-religious that immoral?

One issuer may lie in how the question is asked. The census asks what religion you are, even if you no longer practice it, skewing the numbers toward traditional religious cultures (like Catholicism in Quebec), even where no one practices it. It may be that the penitentiaries are asking different questions.

I’m not sure the answer here. Has anyone looked into better studies on this?

Edit (19 Oct 2012): Typo fixed.

2 thoughts on “Who’s in jail in Canada?”

  1. One thing I wonder is whether these reflect the prison population at the moment, or if they ask what their faith is when they come in.
    If it’s the current population something to consider is the number of inmates that convert or find religion while incarcerated. It’s possible that the faith of the chaplains available has an influence over the religion someone that converts chooses. Does a prison having a catholic chaplain and not a protestant one play an influence in an inmate who is interested in starting to practice a religion choosing catholicism or being a protestant or another religion?

    1. Wow, I missed my typo above (6.6% of prison declared other).

      Anyway, it’s really hard to tell from these numbers and the data from the CSC. It sounds like they just went through in April 2005 and asked people what they identified as. The issue with betting on in-jail conversions is that the numbers don’t support it. If prisoners were converting en masse, we would expect disproportionate numbers of Christians or theists to the general public (there could be alternate explanations for a trend like this, e.g. atheists committing fewer crimes). Instead we see fewer protestants and more non-religious.

      Perhaps the opposite is true then, and the existence of prison chaplains is scaring people away from religion.

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