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HALIFAX—Criticism of cheap prison labour is something often aimed at privately owned U.S. super jails, but here in Canada, thousands of imprisoned people form a labour pool where wages dip below a dollar an hour.
“Motivated workers. ISO-certified plants. Flexible contracts. Your partnership with CORCAN will build your business and boost your productivity,” reads a pitch from CORCAN—a branch of the Correctional Service of Canada (CSC) that coordinates inmate work programs in over 50 shops in manufacturing, textile production, industrial laundry, and other industries.
Every year, about 4,800 inmates across the country participate in CORCAN work programs. Inmates are paid a maximum of $6.90 per day, have no vacation time or vacation pay and need clearance from a health professional to take a sick day. Overtime pay is just over $1 per hour and inmates are required to hand over 25 per cent of any earnings over $69 biweekly for room and board.
Prison wages have not increased in about 25 years; however, according to a 2008 report from Howard Sapers, the Correctional Investigator, the cost of the average basket of canteen goods inmates require has increased from $8.49 to over $60. In the 2008-09 fiscal year, inmates worked about 2.8 million hours collectively.
CORCAN sells most of its goods and services to government departments such as CSC and the Department of National Defence. In 2008-09, CORCAN had about $70 million in sales, with $10 million of those sales to the private sector. If the 4,800 inmates who worked in CORCAN shops were paid at the top rate of $6.90 per day, CORCAN would have spent just $2.4 million paying prisoners—3.45 per cent of its total sales.
In March of last year, inmates at Mountain Institution in Agassiz, BC, announced that they were attempting to organize an inmate labour union in order to improve working conditions for prisoners. It is unclear what the current status of the inmate union is, but prisoner worker action has been reported at prisons across Canada and the US over the past year, including work stoppages and hunger strikes.
"Prisoners are tremendously resourceful organizers, despite the huge barriers they face [such as] censorship, isolation, lack of funds, [and] retribution by staff/administration," says Sara Falconer, a prisoner justice activist involved with the prisoner-edited zine, Certain Days: Freedom for Political Prisoners Calendar.
In some cases, inmates have also been able to turn to the courts to access the rights and freedoms they have been denied. In the 1993 case Sauve v. Canada, the courts struck down laws that stripped prisoners of the right to vote. Prisoners have also argued, with some success, for the right to legal counsel in disciplinary hearings and fought arbitrary transfers and disciplinary measures such as segregation.
“Imprisonment and engagement with the criminal justice system correlates to poverty and other forms of social disadvantage, and even if it doesn’t, it is still a group of people that has human rights. It is still important that our society is held accountable for how it treats them,” says Dr. Debra Parkes, an Associate Professor of Law at the University of Manitoba who has written substantially on prisoner rights and why it is important prisoners have access to the courts.
“Groups [such as prisoners] that don’t always have access to the political process and to making change through that need some avenue to address [the] rights abuses that often happen when you have a majority making rules and laws [that] affect the unpopular minority,” she adds.
When it comes to labour issues though, significant barriers prevent prisoners from using the courts to challenge working conditions. Unlike rights granted under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms that are intended to apply to all people, inmates are excluded from the statutes and regulations that define labour laws.
“These challenges would face uphill battles in the courts,” says Parkes, “especially because in other instances, the courts have ruled that full collective bargaining protection and labour rights do not need to be extended in every case to all people.”
A lack of labour rights for prisoners leaves inmates susceptible to exploitation in the face of prison expansion. According to Parliamentary Budget Officer, Kevin Page, CSC will require at least an additional $3.5 billion in funding in order to address the increases in inmates due to the Truth in Sentencing Act, which limits the credit a judge can give an inmate for time served before sentencing. Page estimates that the Federal government would need to build two low-security facilities with 250 cells each, six medium-security facilities with 600 cells each, four high-security facilities with 400 cells each, and one multi-level-security facility with 400 cells each. Bill C-10, known commonly as the omnibus crime bill, will further drive prison expansion through the use of mandatory, minimum sentences and increases in the number of criminal offences.
Prison expansion also allows for a larger inmate workforce.
Prisoners are assigned to work programs in their correctional plans. A correctional plan is an outline of a program that determines the work, training, and activity for an inmate’s sentence. Inmates have little ability to refuse to work, even in poor conditions, because an inmate’s adherence to their correction plan influences decisions on inmate privileges and parole.
While its mandate is said to be centred on work programs that work for prisoners, decisions ultimately come down to dollar figures. In 2009, CORCAN announced it would be closing six prison farms across the country because the farms had been losing money. CORCAN's 2008-09 annual report states that farms had lost $4.1 million that year. Prison farm supporters, including prisoners, correction workers, prisoner justice activists and community members cited the role of the farms in providing local, fresh food to prisons, and in providing meaningful work for prisoners.
Closures were complete in 2011, despite opposition.
For Falconer, prisoner solidarity like that demonstrated around the closure of prison farms will be essential to successful prisoner resistance.
"There have been some inspirational groups over the years...but this kind of organizing can’t really take off without outside support—otherwise it’s easily silenced by the prison administration," says Falconer. “Outside labour unions also have good cause to support prisoners in these struggles—in Wisconsin and elsewhere, union workers have been replaced by prisoners.
"We need to raise prisoners' voices in our everyday lives and movements—from labour unions to schools to community groups to families," she says. "Those of us on the outside have the resources and relative freedom to spread the word about the conditions prisoners are facing and what actions they want us to take."
Kaley Kennedy is a journalist and activist living in Halifax, Nova Scotia.
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The Dominion is a monthly paper published by an incipient network of independent journalists in Canada. It aims to provide accurate, critical coverage that is accountable to its readers and the subjects it tackles. Taking its name from Canada's official status as both a colony and a colonial force, the Dominion examines politics, culture and daily life with a view to understanding the exercise of power.