1. Death in Prison
Last year at this time, I wrote about the Bell Let’s Talk campaign, and how Bell has multi-million dollar contracts on federal prison phones that allow them to charge predatory rates to prisoners and their families. I pointed out in that article that we criminalize mental illness and use incarceration instead of treatment. Companies like Bell who profit off the prison industrial complex exploit mentally ill prisoners and their families, as they have a literally captive market with no options, no leverage, and no rights.
Because they have a monopoly on the prison phone system and can charge huge rates for calls, those prisoners are often unable to maintain contact with their families which leads to more isolation and worsening mental health outcomes. Controlling access to phone calls is often also used to punish prisoners – in particular, lack of access to phones in segregation (limited to 10 calls a month in the prisons I am familiar with) contributes to the mental health crises of solitary confinement.
One mother of a prisoner told me she has a $700 phone bill monthly because of long distance and collect calls from a prison in Quebec, which is the cost of maintaining contact with her son who struggles with mental health issues.
Prisons have gone so far as to refuse to accept numbers from services like Fedphoneline who offer low-cost alternatives to the prison phone monopoly. Funny how collusion between institutions and companies to unfairly block competition and preserve profits for corporations isn’t a crime, but increasing numbers of low-income women and women suffering from debilitating mental health conditions are incarcerated for small economic crimes.
So I posted about Bell’s exploitative practices in prisons on Facebook, and in the comments, a woman posted who was deeply anxious because she was trying to reach her loved one whose mother had just died. She posted about the difficulty with communicating with someone in prison and how she had tried to call the prison to let them know to call her and they hung up on her. She was also worried because calls in his institution are $7 each and she didn’t have much money to put on his phone.
She was worried she would have to tell him about his mother’s death and then not be able to talk to him long enough to offer support. He has been in segregation for most of his sentence, and she was extremely worried about his mental health and how learning of this death would affect him with no-one to sit with him, comfort him, or help him with his grief. She wasn’t sure he’d be allowed to go to the funeral, and she worried that not being able to bury his mother or say goodbye would severely damage him.
Federally, Correctional Services Canada (CSC) recognizes that “Positive contact with family and friends is very important in the successful reintegration of offenders.” A report in 2013 made recommendations around supporting maintaining contact and the needs of families of offenders that included a recommendation around increased support in times of crisis such as deaths of prisoners or their families.
In practice, though, unless a prisoner is close to the end of their sentence and in a minimum facility, approval to attend funerals or visit a dying family member can be difficult.
I asked one prisoner whose grandmother died while he was serving federal time about his experience losing someone while he was in prison. He described himself as feeling “helpless” and then confessed that he had “blocked most of that out” and couldn’t remember. He was not allowed to go to her funeral because she wasn’t considered an immediate family member. He said his request was returned with a number of reasons given for why he couldn’t go, but he didn’t want to talk anymore about it because it was too painful.
For the many people raised by grandmothers or other family members, policies that are based on who is considered “immediate” family would seem to be discriminatory as well as culturally insensitive particularly for Indigenous and Black prisoners for whom other-mothering and being raised by grandparents is more common. It seems these policies would also have the potential to affect LGBTQ people whose family structures may not be “formally” acknowledged or recognized. A gay prisoner, for example, may not be willing to openly designate a partner as more than a friend, which in turn would affect their ability to attend a funeral or visit them in hospital.
I asked another man doing life about what death is like in prison. He described how people in prison are informed about a death in the family:
The guards will call you up to the bubble and notify you. It depends on the guards. Some of them will do it subtle, some of them will do it – I don’t think they’ll do it smart because that’s liable to blow you up. But they’ll notify you, or somebody in the family will call you or something. What they’ll do is give you the phone and say “here, your sister needs you to call her.” When that happens, you know something bad happened.
I asked him about his own experiences, and he told me he had never asked to go to a funeral “due to his sentence,” although he has had uncles and his grandfather die while he was incarcerated. Then he told me about a recent situation he encountered:
There was a guy in here, buddy’s mother was dying and he was doing life and stuff like that. They gave him a runaround, and they finally asked him if he wanted to visit his mother while she was still alive, and he wanted to say goodbye to his mom himself even though she didn’t understand what he was saying. He had the option to go either in person or to the funeral, but even though she wasn’t really coherent he wanted to go see her in person, that way he could tell her he loves her personally, because that gave him closure.
Leading up to his mother dying, he was a wreck. And then when he got to go finally say goodbye, that put him at peace. He got back and the next day she died. That visit for him was everything.
He did get to go, but there are guys that don’t get to go, for various reasons. They look at everything, like are you going to get drugs from the visit or anything like that.
I asked him how it feels to experience death while inside, and if there were any supports or counselling offered. He told me that mostly you can’t let your grieving show:
Me myself, I don’t really study it. I’m fortunate that everyone in my family that is really close to me is still alive. But being in prison so long you accept that. One thing they say in jail, if someone dies, they tell the boy, at least now they’re free. Because some guys in here, death is the only freedom they’re going to get.
That’s why guys are told, if someone passed away in their family and they can’t hold their crying or whatever, to keep that shit in their cell because that shit spreads. And it’s not being selfish of us to tell that guy, stay in your cell while you’re grieving. It’s just that if they come out and they start telling their story, it spreads. Because everyone in jail lost somebody. So you only got a two- or three-day grace period to mourn. Otherwise, suck it up buttercup, you know?
Guys in jail that lose their family, man, cry and shit when the doors are closed, when you’re supposed to. When you’re coming out, you know you’re not supposed to bring your feelings out on the block. Because if you cry too much, and you go on too much, somebody’s going to yell at you to shut up. You think you’re the only person who lost somebody?
Once you’re inside, the cold reality is, we’re all born to die. That’s the only thing in life we’re guaranteed.
Having a family member die while incarcerated is hard enough, but for one person I talked to, he experienced a family member dying in prison while he was also doing time. Because the case was so high profile, he ended up learning details from the media about her death while he sat inside a cell. I am haunted by this story, by what it must be like to have a close family member die due to negligence and abuse in the prison system, and to be “at the mercy” of that very same system as the details come out. This is also the story of the aftermath of death in prison, and how families feel the effects and suffer for years.
In his own words, he told me about it:
Personally, I had a family member die while I was incarcerated, and I was within probably six months of being released. And they refused to let me go to the funeral. Most people they do that, they won’t let you go because you’re in a maximum security, or this or that. I’ve seen it happen to another guy, his brother died, and they wouldn’t let him go to the visit, and he committed suicide because of it. Unless you’re really close to them, or low security, or whatever, otherwise they won’t let you go.
I was heartbroken myself. I never saw it coming. Me and [her] were really close growing up as kids, and we sort of followed the same route – went to provincial, went to federal – and we wrote letters back and forth to each other. It was difficult even like that, but when she died, it was a big slap in the face that I wasn’t allowed to go to the funeral to say goodbye to her, and I was okay to be released six months later. I think anyone else would feel the same way – sort of let down, as if it’s a punishment that you can’t go.
I asked if there were any supports offered, and what it was like emotionally to be in that situation:
With me, they gave me like a few days, no more than a week I was allowed to call every day, other than that, there was a chaplain, and I could write a request to see them. The person that came to tell me wasn’t the chaplain, it was a correctional officer, saying, here’s a phone you need to call home. And I knew things were bad right away when I called and she said “Hi buddy! How are ya?” And I knew. That’s not how she talks when she gets on the phone with me. And she said, [she’s] gone, she passed away. And I didn’t realize the scope of things until a few days later how bad, how corrupt and everything was in how it played out.
So with me not being able to go to the funeral, you can’t say goodbye to the person who died. you will always have that part of you missing. Like a hole that should have been filled.
Because the family member’s death was so high profile, he had to watch details on the news. Most disturbingly, many of the details of her death matched incidents he himself was experiencing:
I was learning stuff from the media that I didn’t even know. Things in the two CBC episodes, those shows they did, stuff like that — spraying you while you’re in handcuffs. So many similarities. I’ve been sprayed while I was in handcuffs last year, and they sprayed her a lot. On the video you could see them spraying her.
Because he was in a super-maximum institution at the time, his mother remembers visiting him with a copy of the funeral. She recalls:
They didn’t even let us have a contact visit…it was in the room where they typically do close-circuit court appearances and such, so he was literally in sort of this round cage and all we could do is sit there and listen to this thing and cry together. It was absolutely horrific.
When I asked him about that visit, he added that even that “horrific” situation was a privilege denied to other people in prison:
Even other inmates don’t get that privilege. They paid for my mom’s flight, they picked them up from the airport with a keeper and brought them here, and we had a visit where the SHU inmates don’t have visits. It’s not contact, it’s through bars. All I was able to do was watch a video that mom had made about her life and a whole bunch of pictures and music and stuff. Other inmates don’t have access to that, that’s the first time I’ve ever seen anything like that, and that’s because it was [such a high profile case of a death in prison.]
His mother believes that they were trying to keep the family quiet at that point, since it was so early in the process. “They thought that was going to help so that we wouldn’t cause a great big fuss.” Despite these early attempts to “placate” the family, however, he remembers that:
Within two weeks of that happening, I had a guard reach his head in the door and said, I’m quoting him, “why don’t you do the same as your friend in Ontario.” So the guards didn’t give a fuck. They only cared for themselves, how good they made themselves look.
As the case gained publicity and an inquiry into her death took place which indicted the system and found the officers culpable for homicide, he was in prison, vulnerable to any reprisals as the family pursued justice. According to his mother:
He was absolutely at their mercy. He was by himself, surrounded by these people who were in this united front, the union was making all these announcements, CSC, and right up the the Prime Minister’s office. And here he was not being able to even have the support of his family. It was horrible.
I asked him what he thought could be done better when family members die. At first he suggested that at least video visits could be allowed. Despite the assumption often made that people in prison are entitled or can’t take responsibility, what I most often find in my conversations with people inside is how willing they are to accept treatment we would find unbearable, and how little they complain about injustices in the system. He began not by demanding visits, but only by suggesting that maybe everyone could see a video of a funeral, a process his family found traumatic, but that he was willing to accept.
Then he suggested that as the process is now,
Correctional officers go with you, you’re handcuffed and shackled, and they have two guards armed with 9mm.
The only reason why they don’t let people go is because it’s money. If it’s their family, or anything happens to CSC guards, they’ll pay to do the right thing. Get this, when even a parole officer dies, they go over the intercom and say a moment of silence, but they don’t do it for us. They don’t care enough to do it.
But they already have a system where they can take you. That should be enough for everybody. There shouldn’t be a can you go, can you not go thing. If they think it’s a risk [increase security.]
I’ll leave it to the readers to picture what it’s like to attend a funeral for a family member and have a loved one in chains surrounded by guns at the service.
I asked if he’d ever heard of anyone escaping from a funeral, and he said no. Nobody would risk visits with their family he said. He couldn’t imagine anyone inflicting pain on their family like that at a funeral. But then, he couldn’t think of anyone getting to attend a funeral, either. He’d heard it could happen, but not to anyone he knew.
A couple of weeks ago, my dad called me distraught. My heart stopped on the phone, thinking maybe my mother was in hospital or there had been some terrible family crisis. My dad was choking back tears as he told me about his dog dying, and her last moments at the vets. I consoled him, and asked how he was memorializing her. He writes me every couple of days about the big hole he feels whenever he goes for a walk, how he misses seeing her downstairs, how he even misses her pee on the rug.
And the reality is, dogs get more consideration in death than we give to people in prison. Beloved pets die surrounded by family members, who have the chance to say goodbye, to mourn, to memorialize. For prisoners and their families these basic human rituals are denied. On release, families go years later to gravesites, finally trying to lay loved ones to rest.
Nobody should have to lose someone they love and not be able to grieve, or to sit in solitary confinement hearing about a death while they have no human contact, with nobody to even talk to, with no touch or consolation. When we consider things like basic contact or feeling emotions to be a luxury or a privilege, we are getting very far from what it means to be human ourselves.
2. Work, work, work, work, work
Ivan Zinger, Canada’s correctional investigator, reports on the problems with CORCAN, the prison industries that train and employ federal prisoners.
CORCAN offers training in a variety of sectors, including manufacturing, textiles and construction. Inmates make products such as office furniture which is then sold, usually to other federal government departments.
Those industries aren’t thriving in Canada and the skills inmates learn while practising them are very basic and difficult to transfer into the labour market, said Zinger.
“The type of work being provided by CORCAN does not match well … the labour market demands. CORCAN does a poor job at ensuring that those who are benefiting from CORCAN can actually find meaningful work once released,” he said.
Zinger notes a shortage of jobs and meaningful work and training opportunities within CSC, and recommends that prisoners be encouraged to work towards their red seal.
I wrote about CORCAN’s exploitation of prisoners in conditions described by African Canadian prisoners as “like enslavement.” The release of Ava Duvernay’s documentary 13th identified the ways the prison industrial complex in the United States profits off the bodies of Black people. In Canada, where we imagine both anti-Black racism and mass incarceration to be an American problem, there is not as much scrutiny of the prison industries and the use of captive labour.
Zinger’s report identifies numerous shortcomings in the kind of jobs available through CORCAN, the lack of useful training, and the problems in getting jobs upon release. However, the very concept of prison labour also needs to be called into question — and while expanding prison work programs may well provide better job training and upgraded skills, the idea of more prison manufacturing and more products made by incarcerated labour should be chilling.
The prison pay scale hasn’t been increased since the 1980s in Canada. There have been a number of prison strikes protesting prison pay and job conditions, including a mass national action in 2013. Prisoners have also challenged pay cuts in court:
The suit claims the new pay scale means many inmates are no longer able to pay for phone calls, send money out to support their families or have money to prepare for their release. Inmates must also use their own money to purchase personal hygiene items such as shampoo, soap, deodorant and over the counter medications, which the system no longer provides.
The prison pay scale ranges from less than a dollar a day to $6.90. Most prisoners average about $28 every two weeks once the deductions are taken. For prisoners working in CORCAN industries, they are “taking home” around $2 a day for 8-9 hours of work on a quota. In the welding shops, for example, prisoners are expected to grind 350 sheets a day, in non-air-conditioned shops. Women’s work in prison includes sewing underwear for the male prisoners, or blankets for the military — which, as I pointed out, gave smallpox blankets to Indigenous people who are now stunningly overrepresented in prison. Beyond the question of whether this work is “meaningful” should be the question of whether it is a human rights violation, and whether it is moral.
By all means, prisoners should be provided with meaningful skills and usable qualifications. But they also should be fairly compensated for their work. Impoverished people — particularly from racialized, Indigenous, and rural communities that have been systemically denied resources — are more vulnerable to addiction, lack access to treatment programs, and cannot pay for adequate defences, and so are disproportionately criminalized, convicted with harsher sentences, and placed into the prison system.
When we have made it far more difficult to get a pardon, when we are incarcerating people for non-violent crimes, and when employers discriminate against workers with a prison record, all the job skills in the world won’t help unless we also reform the way prisoners are viewed in the outside world. We say “do the crime, do the time,” but continue to punish people long after the expiration of their sentences. If we want to change how people find work after prison, we must also change laws around disclosure of criminal records and the use of those records to deny access to programs, housing, and employment.
APTN recently broke a story detailing how programs for Indigenous prisoners were being used to produce things like moccasins and drums which were then being sold for up to $100 as “authentic handcrafted native arts.”
Inmates working at the shop get paid up to $6.90 a day for their work. Lech said he only allows non-Indigenous inmates to enter the program if he’s exhausted the waiting list.
A price list of items produced by the shop from 2014 shows inmates there make about 25 different items, from mitts to drums, to moccasins to dream-catcher key chains. The price list was obtained by Jean-Philippe Crete, a visiting junior fellow at the Centre for Criminology and Socio-legal Studies at the University of Toronto.
The shop sells its moccasins, made from cow leather, for $55 a pair, a 15 inch drum, made with Elks skin and cypress wood, for $100 and dream-catcher key chains for $3 each, HST included. Other products include mitts for $70, headbands for $75 and moccasin key chains for $3, HST included.
Lech said the price of items is set to recover the cost of materials and tools. The workshop, which can employ up to 11 inmates, produces about 250 pairs of moccasins and up to 60 drums a year, he said.
CORCAN’s full slate of products and services is projected to generate about $90 million in gross profits by the end of the 2017 fiscal year.
If this is what is meant by “meaningful” job skills as promoted by CORCAN, that is terrifying.
Prison labour capitalizes off systemic neglect and racism, replacing the social safety net and any kind of meaningful government support with criminalization. Any analysis of prison work programs has to begin with recognizing how incarceration is used in place of social supports, how colonialism and racism determine which bodies end up doing time, and the historic exploitation and abuse of those bodies. To then pay those bodies $2 a day and call that “job training” as the communities they come from are denied employment programs, social assistance, education, or support for dying industries, is obscene.
If you don’t work in prison and are not recognized as disabled, then you are placed on deadlock, meaning you can’t exit your cell during the day. Coerced labour forces prisoners to work jobs where they are being abused in order to maintain the small amount of freedom they have. Because the prison workforce is captive, has no rights, and is unlikely to protest, they make the perfect austerity solution — why not imprison as many people as possible where you don’t have to pay benefits, pensions, and where the workers who threaten to strike can be placed in segregation or transferred or otherwise intimidated and repressed?
Prisoners should be allowed to unionize like any other workers to ensure the protection of both their rights and the rights of non-imprisoned workers whose own pay and conditions are undercut by the availability of a prison workforce.
As we support teachers and government workers and journalists in their actions against employers, we should also be in solidarity with the working rights of prisoners. Prison is not a social program and, when we view it as such, we dangerously allow the exploitation and abuse of the people within the system in the name of “rehabilitation,” “programming,” or “reform.”
3. Oxford Frozen Foods
I’m hoping Tim will look more into this, but this story about Syrian refugees working for Oxford Frozen Foods raised alarm bells for me.
The section that really gave me pause was this:
Majad Alboush, his wife and two sons moved from Advocate in mid-December to Oxford and into a house owned by the frozen food company. It used to house temporary foreign workers in the summer months.
Reports on migrant agricultural workers have repeatedly identified substandard housing and the abuse of dependent workers through controlling their housing as serious human rights issues. Oxford Frozen Foods offers home loan programs to workers, but the practice of company-owned housing for seasonal, temporary, and migrant labour is ripe with exploitation:
Migrant workers are housed in a variety of different accommodations. Most live on the farmers’ properties in bunk houses, barns or trailers. Some live away from the farms in motels or apartment buildings. Generally, accommodations are paid for by the employer.
Preibisch has documented a litany of substandard living conditions, from mould in bedrooms, a lack of indoor toilets and standing water to a gas leak that one employer refused to fix.
This housing and employment situation raises questions for me that the article doesn’t answer. As the Temporary Foreign Worker program is under pressure for reforms amid wide allegations of abuse, is the company replacing these workers with refugee labour? Reviews by workers of Oxford Frozen Foods emphasize the long 12-hour shifts, the seasonal nature of the work, and the low pay — averaging $13 an hour.
I wrote about Oxford Frozen Foods, the blueberry monopoly, and the granting of crown land to the company in the summer. In the fall issue of the Union Farmer Quarterly, the problem is explained this way:
An increase in production and processing without an increase in global markets has led to an inventory carry‐over of frozen blueberries. The processing plant, which opened in July, is processing berries from growers in Maine rather than NB. Wyman’s, another major blueberry processor based in Maine, used to have buying stations set up in the region, but with the opening of the Oxford plant, all the Wyman’s buying stations have been closed this year. Not to mention that for the past few years, New Brunswick growers have received less per pound than their counterparts in Quebec and Maine. In what appears to be a year of high production, this further compounds the growers’ problems. The government supported the growth of a vertically integrated company in an effort to become the world’s largest producer of wild blueberries, with no stipulations that the plant must process a certain percentage of NB blueberries or employ a certain number of NB residents. In doing so they have created an environment where it is virtually impossible for growers to receive a fair price.
In 2015, Oxford Frozen foods shut down the plant in Canning rather than comply with environmental directives:
About 100 seasonal workers are losing their jobs at an Annapolis Valley frozen food processing plant that will close after Environment Canada ordered it to stop discharging waste water into a nearby waterway.
Hillaton Foods, a division of Oxford Frozen Foods Ltd. that primarily processes carrots for the North American market, is shutting down its facility near Canning, N.S., at the end of the year.
Jordan Burkhardt, director of human resources for Oxford Frozen Foods, said most employees at Hillaton Foods are seasonal. The 100 jobs are equivalent to 53 full-time positions. The company said those losing their jobs can apply for work at the plant in Oxford, N.S.
In February, 2016, Tim exposed the payroll tax rebate for Oxford Frozen Foods:
Well, that’s all I have time for this morning, but you get the point: The Braggs give a shitload of money to the Liberal Party. And now the Liberal government is giving a shitload of money to Oxford Frozen Foods.
Oh, and let’s not forget that John Bragg is Speaker of the Atlantic Institute of Market Studies, the right-wing (non)think-tank that supposedly promotes the free market. Well, the free market for me and you, but not for Oxford Frozen Foods.
Put together with all these red flags something about this story doesn’t sit right with me. Maybe Tim can do more investigating and see if this feel-good story about refugees finding employment actually has some kind of darker corporate motive, or if maybe (for once) this is actually some kind of social enterprise and do-gooding on the part of the company.
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