1. Working on the Inside: Part I

The image of prisoners making licence plates seems like kind of a joke from American classic movies. The reality that Canadian prisoners are involved in mass production, largely for government and defence contractors, is perhaps a surprise to most readers.

image from mentalfloss.com
image from mentalfloss.com

Once prisoners move into the prison from reception (intake and assessment) or if they come from another prison, they have a two week grace period to find a job. After that time, if you aren’t employed you are locked in your cell during work hours. For prisoners doing long sentences, particularly for lifers, being locked up all day leads to becoming more institutionalized. Prisoners who have done a lot of time in the SHU (Special Handling Unit, the highest security facility) describe struggling with socialization while reintegrating into prison populations due to the isolation and deprivation of stimulation or activity. Prisoners want and need to be out of their cells being occupied, and so they have to get a job.

You will often see people in comments complain about imaginary prisoners just sitting around all day watching cable TV, but in reality, prisoners want to be as active as possible to make the time pass.

There are all kinds of other reasons to want or need a job as well. Many inmates come from impoverished backgrounds, or from the streets. Many don’t have family support, perhaps because they grew up in care and group homes, perhaps because their addiction drove loved ones away, perhaps they have been in and out of institutions, perhaps because of family and generational violence. For lucky prisoners, family or friends on the outside can put money into canteen or onto phone cards, but for many this is not a reality. In order to get necessities like toothpaste or menstrual products, you have to pay for them yourself, which means having a job.

Holding a job in prison is also important for parole review, or for cascading down to a lower security prison. Education and programs are important as well and prisoners also get paid to attend classes and programs, but most correctional plans would also include working. A prisoner who sits in a cell all day can’t be compelled to work, but choosing not to work or participate in programs results in negative reports, which in turn result in being denied parole.

Working in prison also factors into assessments of positive behaviour which is necessary for things like being able to move into more privileged pods or ranges. So while prisoners aren’t forced to work, in reality, there are negative institutional consequences to not working. “Finding gainful employment” in prison was therefore described to me as “mandatory.”

According to a former inmate committee member (inmates who liase with administration and advocate for prisoners), “Basically anything that happens in the prison except administration and the guards is done by the prisoners with someone overseeing us.”

The jobs are either down in the CorCan (Corrections Canada) shops and, depending which institution, the jobs can range from electrician, plumber, janitorial, furniture assembly for government contracts such as military or schools. Then there’s the cooks down in the dining hall, inmate committee, hobby shop, range cleaners, canteen, building cleaners, landscaping, recycling, gym cleaners.

Then there are jobs where you can go outside the institution and work in CorCan shops or do community work…Even down “the farm” the prisoners drive the vehicles, detail them, and do maintenance on them. Trusties are inmates with earned privilege who go outside the walls or drive other inmates places.

It is important to understand here that prisons cannot run without prisoner labour. If prisoners were to refuse their labour, it would be a threat to the existence of the entire system. Therefore, the bottom line (literally) is that prisoners must work in order to keep the prison system going. It is little surprise then that prison employment is seen as inherently rehabilitative by the correctional system:

Correctional employment is currently seen as having a number of positive outcomes, apart from teaching specific job skills. For example, the institution benefits from increased structure in inmate daily schedules, increased inmate activity and better overall inmate adaptation to prison life.

The rehabilitative function of correctional employment has also been reported by researchers, staff and offenders. In addition to marketable job skills and work experience, correctional employment gives offenders the opportunity for personal development (such as learning responsibility and self discipline) — which can contribute to their rehabilitation.

As Angela Davis explains, the “Auburn system” which came to be the model of correctional facilities, emphasized labour in common (conducted in strict silence.) By working together, prisoners were supposed to meditate on their sins, and become reformed through work. This connection between efficient labour and the supposed moral benefits of work are at the root of the construction of the prison industrial complex.

YouTube video

The desirable jobs are ones like gym cleaners, who can workout after cleaning, or landscapers who can spend the shift outside. Most of these jobs have some kind of perk or benefit. A range cleaner won’t spend the whole shift cleaning so can find some extra time on the phone. Cooks can get extra servings of food. Most of these type of jobs allow prisoners to move around and socialize while working. Jobs also come with privileges, more movement, more time outside, more freedom in general, which provides other incentives to work.

In lower security facilities where inmates are allowed access to tools, jobs like welding and electrician are valued by prisoners. Along with the job, prisoners can take training, and prisoners who are allowed absences can attend trade or educational programs. These jobs help prisoners build skills they can use when they reintegrate, and are often a source of pride to prisoners. Just because people are in prison doesn’t mean they don’t want to contribute something, to feel like they are moving forward in life, and to feel productive and useful.

But while these jobs allow some freedom of movement or even development of job skills (even as the institution also benefits), “CorCan” jobs were described to me as “like a sweatshop.” Because prisoners only have two weeks to find a job before they face being locked up during the day, people end up feeling coerced into taking a CorCan job when they become desperate and can’t find anything else.

Unlike other jobs, the CorCan shops were described as involving long hours of intense work that is heavily supervised. Even worse, because prisoners sign a contract with CorCan, once an inmate takes that job, even if they find a more desirable one later they are stuck in their contract. CorCan workers also have to meet quotas. Unlike the rationale for other jobs — that prisoners are benefitting from learning a trade that can become a career on the outside — this mass production work doesn’t prepare prisoners for skilled work on the outside, other than perhaps further low wage, exploitable labour.

According to Corrections Canada:

“CORCAN has traditionally marketed itself to federal departments. Departments such as CSC, the Department of National Defence, and Public Works and Government Services Canada had traditionally bought the bulk of CORCAN’s products.

In recent years, CORCAN has moved to a more diversified product line and begun to market its products and services to a greater number of departments. Also, CORCAN has begun to explore new markets in a more systematic way than before. This has been accomplished with the help of an increasing number of private-sector partners.”

Different prisons apparently make different products. In Atlantic Institution (Renous) former prisoners remember making mattresses for the military and for CSC. At Nova Institution for Women, the women make blankets and pillows for the military. A former inmate at Springhill said he made furniture, for the military and for the government.

In the past, prisoners were offered incentives (reportedly up to $2 an hour) for taking CorCan jobs. That incentive no longer exists, nor does overtime or any other kind of bonus pay. The former committee member tells me:

“They’ve taken out the CorCan incentive and started charging more for boarding. So basically you’re paying them out of the little you get to stay somewhere you don’t want to be. Also, they’ve started charging an administration fee to put money on your calling cards, for canteen…

You also realize that CorCan bids on contracts with the knowledge that they offer the cheapest workforce available. They save millions because we do all the work they would have to hire literally hundreds more staff to perform. There hasn’t been a pay raise for the prisoners in probably 20 years or more although cost of living has risen substantially in that time frame.”

How much money do prisoners receive a day to make these products? The pay scale ranges from $2.50 to $6.90 per day. The current pay scale runs:

A level pay: $6.90 per day
B level pay: $6.35
C level pay: $5.80
D level pay: $5.25
E level pay: $2.50

F level pay is if a prisoner is not working, in which case they receive institutional pay of $1 per day. While the top level pay is supposedly $6.90, a source tells me, for example, that no woman in Nova Institution is currently making that amount. (The highest pay in Nova Institute is apparently for peer counsellors.) It seems probable that male inmates are more likely to be trained in jobs such as electrician or welder and other trades dominated by men which would be eligible for higher pay — meaning that women experience a pay gap in prison as well.

This means that for precipitously below minimum wage, workers are sewing blankets or pillows or making mattresses for the Canadian military or making products for use by the government.

Out of that, inmates pay $5 every pay period into the inmate welfare fund. This money goes for things like cable for TVs, covering the institutional pay of inmates who don’t work, and paying for things like the vending machines for visits (visitors can buy pop, chips, and candy). In fact, the amenities which “tough on crime” critics are infuriated by prisoners having access to are payed out of prisoners’ own labour.

If an inmate is fired from their job or suspended, they go down a pay grade. There doesn’t seem to be a formal system for moving up a pay grade — I was told you “talk to your CX2 (staff assigned to a prisoner) every six months to a year and they talk about your performance with your bosses.”

Because CorCan jobs are seen as a last resort, one might expect that there is an overrepresentation of racialized prisoners in these jobs. A recent Maclean’s article, for example, exposed the racism that impacts Indigenous people at all levels of the justice system. The same factors that lead to Indigenous prisoners being assessed at higher risk, for example, also would have an effect on employment within the prison. As the article reported:

“An Indigenous offender’s problems begin with intake, [correctional investigator Howard] Sapers says, where their risk level is often consistently over-classified by the Custody Rating Scale; it determines whether they belong in minimum, medium or maximum security (and almost everything else about their time behind bars). For years, the federal government has been ignoring repeated demands to reform these and other assessment tools used on the Indigenous inmate population. The latest, in September, came in a blistering Federal Court ruling. Justice Michael Phelan ordered Correctional Service Canada (CSC) to stop using them on Indigenous offenders, arguing they are “susceptible to cultural bias,” and can produce “junk” data.

“This is not an issue the CSC missed inadvertently,” Justice Phelan wrote, noting the U.K., Australia and the U.S. have all studied such assessments to ensure they are reliable for cultural minorities. “It has been a live issue since 2000, on the CSC’s ‘radar screen,’ and the subject of past court decisions. It is time for the matter to be resolved.” CSC immediately appealed.

Part of the problem is that the marginalization experienced by some Indigenous peoples gets turned into “risk”: intergenerational trauma, alcoholism, a history of abuse, a lack of education, employment, a bank account or even hobbies make it more likely an inmate will be housed in maximum, and classed “high risk.”

Cruelties are built into the system. The main reason Indigenous women — who account for 78 per cent of all self-harm incidents in prison — are moved to higher security levels is due to self-harm, including suicide attempts, according to a 2008 report by the Ontario Women’s Justice Network.

Because Indigenous inmates are less likely to have held a job before incarceration and less likely to have completed high school education, for example, they are less likely to be “suitable” for skilled labour within the prison. An inmate assessed at higher risk is unlikely to, say, be given a job in the hospital where inmates work closely with staff. Similarly, as an article in The Torontoist reported:

While African-Canadians make up three per cent of the general population, they account for 10 per cent of the federal prison population. The recent report also indicates that while in prison, Black inmates are overrepresented in segregation, and that they are subject to nearly 15 per cent of all use-of-force incidents. In a case study released in 2014 on the Black inmate experience, the office of the correctional investigator points out that “despite being rated as a population having a lower risk to re-offend and lower need overall, Black inmates are more likely to be placed in maximum security institutions.”

The systemic racism that leads to racialized inmates being marginalized and assessed more harshly at every level of the system is likely to also play into the selection of inmates for more desirable jobs. A source familiar with Nova reports that Mi’kmaq women are heavily represented in CorCan, for example. It is troubling that “sweatshop” labour is more likely to be performed by Black and Indigenous inmates, particularly given histories of colonization and enslavement. Black and Indigenous inmates are overrepresented in a system that then compels them to work in mass production for the government at $5 a day.

In a country where reserves are in crisis, Indigenous inmates are labouring to create cheap goods for the same government responsible for the conditions that lead to disproportionate incarceration of Indigenous people. Indigenous people colonized and forced onto reserves by the military now sew blankets for the army to sleep at night. It is impossible to separate Black inmates working for far below minimal pay from slave labour practices of cheap African bodies.

While the Corrections Canada site promotes the benefits of labour to prisoners for building skills, changing behaviour and reintegration into society, they also express an interest in developing more private sector contracts. For example, this article available on the CSC site discusses the risks and benefits of “partnerships” with the private sector:

“Since the early 1980s, inmate populations have grown at an unprecedented rate. For example, the U.S. federal prison population has nearly tripled in the past decade, from 32,000 in 1984 to 90,000 in 1995.

Prison industries have, as a result, become an indispensable program for correctional administrators — both in meeting their short-term goal of maintaining order in overtaxed correctional facilities and in meeting their long-term goal of eventually keeping offenders gainfully employed. The courts have also entered orders requiring meaningful offender work in situations where a correctional system has been found to be in violation of the Eighth Amendment (cruel and unusual punishment).

However, several difficulties have arisen in attempts to expand correctional industries, such as the limited availability of (or access to) funding and the need for research into new products and markets. One way correctional industries have chosen to meet these challenges is by involving the private sector.”

This desire for partnerships with private industry is particularly troubling. The use of a captive workforce performing exploited labour with no union or organizing capability in order to receive cheaper contracts on production in a system where bidding on contracts and the awarding of these contracts is less-than-transparent should alarm us all.

That the explosion of the prison population is seen as an opportunity rather than a human rights crisis and a failure of society and justice is appalling.

Impoverished people are more likely to end up in prison due to lack of educational and employment opportunities, which then allows their labour to be exploited on the inside to make products cheaply for corporations.

In Canada, the growing rate of incarceration among Black and Indigenous populations, while incarceration drops among other groups, means that the targets of this private labour are disproportionately racialized people. Why diversify the workforce when you can capitalize off a racist justice system in order to draw on a pool of cheap labour?

When there is a direct benefit to the state of putting people in prison — and justifying the low pay by the fact that they are given “room and board” — there’s little incentive for the state to address the problem of mass incarceration. Rather than spend money to make housing available, to support education, and to provide job training, an incarcerated population can provide cheap labour to the state while simultaneously driving down the contract price for competing labourers on the outside.

When I asked the former committee member if prisoners had ever organized or protested the pay, he informed me that “you can’t address it unless all the committees across Canada staged workouts.”  This, he pointed out, was impossible because “they monitor any correspondence between institutions with extreme scrutiny to avoid any attempts to do this. Committee members caught are charged with inciting and receive higher security.” He said attempts to organize labour would be seen as “inciting a walkout, undermining administration, and abusing a position of trust.”

Most successful actions were by walkouts. Only way to make them respond is to hit their pockets. Thing is, the inmate population isn’t as unified. We had a successful one in Springhill when they were going to take the incentive from the kitchen workers. A bunch of guys were put in the hole…I think it was 4 or 5 days and then they caved.

While inmates can grieve workplace abuse or other labour issues to the ombudsman, the decisions take a long time and prisoners feel vulnerable to reprisals. While there have been prisoner strikes, most recently in 2013, inmates are clearly not safe to organize or protest conditions, and without outrage from people on the outside or any political pressure, working conditions remain the same.

I asked union activist CJ Gannon, national president at Union of Veterans Affairs Employees, to comment on the use of prison labour by companies, including military contracts. He responded:

My first thoughts are related to the exploitation of those workers who find themselves employed behind bars. The reality for most Canadians is that their employer is governed by strict labour laws, including health and safety that don’t really apply to unorganized groups of workers, working behind bars. This is not only callous, it’s dangerous and irresponsible.

Also, if you think of the direct and indirect power that a legitimate employer wields over their employee, than you contrast that with the fact that behind bars, your employer also controls your freedom. This creates a dynamic that even if checks and balances were in place, who’s going to complain?

The money being made on both private and public partnerships, as opposed to the wages being paid and working conditions being provided can be likened to the slave trade. It is criminal.

I am not as concerned with jobs being taken away as opportunities must be created for anyone who is trying to work through their situation. We can’t expect to lock someone up without providing any opportunity for them to be successful and productive and expect them to rejoin society, reformed.

In the documentary The War Room, about Bill Clinton’s 1992 presidential campaign, James Carville says, “Outside of a person’s love, the most sacred thing they can give is their labour.” Prisoners do not have free choice about how they work. Under pressure to find jobs, risking consequences to their prison sentences, lacking skills and education, prisoners end up compelled into labouring in exploited conditions to produce material used by the state.

The idea that our military benefits from cheap products manufactured by imprisoned labour — a fact unknown to most Canadians — should give us pause, at the very least. It is a terrible irony that Black and Indigenous Canadians struggle to find jobs, until they are made into captive labour and then potentially coerced into sweatshop conditions.

In The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander argues that the war on drugs and mass incarceration are used post-civil rights to enforce “racialized control.” The same groups of people oppressed by generations of racism, poverty, enslavement and genocide, end up in prisons as a result, where their bodies are used to make cheap products for the same government that denies them opportunity at every turn.

I contacted Correctional Service Canada and the Department of National Defence to request details of the prison labour contracts, what products are made, what the bidding process is like, whether any private companies use these products, etc. I will follow up next week with the results of that investigation.

2. Spring Garden Road

Summer is coming, which means it must be time for everything downtown to be homeless people’s fault, such as forcing business owners to not understand women’s clothes.


The fact that downtown is filled with giant gaping hellmouths of knocked down buildings, that there’s no parking and parking is aggressively enforced, that businesses like racism more than money, and that the area is infested with rats and mice due to the construction of the Nova Centre of course has nothing to do with why shoppers don’t go downtown. It’s all homeless people “chasing people into stores,” apparently. Maybe we should solve homelessness by recruiting these alleged homeless elite level sprinters for the Olympic team.

This is the photo CBC news chose to represent Spring Garden’s “trendy shopping area.”

Image of super high end shopping in Halifax from CBC.
Image of super high end shopping in Halifax from CBC.

Ah yes, that “trendy” Lawtons and Macdonalds. I can’t tell, is that Halifax or the Magnificent Mile in Chicago? OMG did the homeless people steal the Bloomingdale’s?

According to the councillor who represents the trendy shopping area, there is a campaign in the works aimed at the people who give panhandlers money.

“They’re there because people are giving them money,” said Coun. Waye Mason. “So you may want to consider giving money to a charity — that would support transitioning them off the street.”

Man, people will go away if we just stop giving them money? Does that work for politicians and developers too? Dude, let’s all stop paying our taxes now.

The issue came up Tuesday during a debate on a streetscaping project along Spring Garden Road between Queen and South Park streets. A total of $11 million will be spent on that stretch, mainly to bury power and communication lines.

Particularly buried are the communications lines between people who live on the streets and people who shop downtown.

Not noted in the article: whether $11 million in housing, mental health services, or funding for beds in addictions treatment would help reduce homelessness.

3. Ogle Maps

There’s a helpful map showing the route of the police chase of the rampaging white SUV accompanying this CBC article.

Screen Shot 2016-04-30 at 6.46.33 AM

Nice try, SUV. It kind of looks like asscheeks, but next time it would be funnier if you drove in the shape of a dick, ok?

Image from theguardian.com
Image from theguardian.com

4. Sobeys

Andrella David was awarded $21 000 from Sobeys in her racial profiling case. Sobeys was also ordered to write an apology.

Symbolic image of oppression from brightestblue.files.wordpress.com
Symbolic image of oppression from brightestblue.files.wordpress.com

OMG, I totally intercepted the draft of the apology, which I reproduce here:

Dear Oprah,

Whassup, girl? (note: using their vernacular will make them feel comfortable.) On behalf of Sobeys, I would like to issue an apology for the alleged discriminatory treatment you suffered while shoplifting shopping in our store. It is unfortunate that our negro colored (note: what do they call themselves these days?) customers cannot buy their collard greens and watermelon with their food stamps in peace (note: that’s what they eat, right?) After taking diversity training, we now realize how offensive the assumption that all you people look alike is. Now that we have watched Chris Rock’s excellent sketch on the differences between different groups of Black people (note: I deleted the n-word here. Reinsert?) we understand that there are in fact important distinctions between you.

YouTube video

We also understand now that unlike normal people, your dark skin makes you show up on video tape differently (mostly as teeth) and we deeply regret our previous ignorance around this fact.

$21, 000 is a lot of money. We advise you not to give it to any homeless people (it makes them not go away) and try not to spend it all on drugs or liquor or baby formula for your multiple young children that you surely have. You don’t want to run out before cheque day!

Now that we wrote this, your people can’t go around saying you never got an apology for slavery or whatever so hopefully you can learn to stop pulling the race card and get over it. Like Martin Luther King said, one day little white girls and boys will hold hands with negroes African-American Canadians — gloves optional — and then you can stop complaining.



(Note: Can somebody look at this so that it’s PC? These people are so sensitive.)

El Jones is a poet, journalist, professor, community advocate, and activist. Her work focuses on social justice issues such as feminism, prison abolition, anti-racism, and decolonization.

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  1. Hadn’t realized what CorCan stood for. BTW the “military” aka CAF or DND and I Imagine other government departments are pretty much forced to purchase from CorCan. If you go elsewhere it likely costs more from budgets which cause both bean counters and the tax payers to get pissy. So the Feds have created a perfect self licking ice cream cone with prison labour at its core.
    Once again informative and thought provoking.

  2. As usual, I have to thank El Jones for her brilliant Saturday tutorial. I like to call it “Stuff Trevor would otherwise not know – and even if he did know about it, he wouldn’t understand it.” Keep at it, El and the Halifax Examiner.

  3. Hope this isn’t too melodramatic but methinks El is becoming somewhat of a civic, provincial, national treasure.

    In a world quickly approaching a capitalist induced homogeniety her words and thoughts are becoming more essential reading. Powerful stuff that more people need to read and here.

    We are constantly reminded about how insecure our jobs are, our retirement, our kids. It’s always good to be jolted into recognizing that there are problems felt by people every day that a good porttion of us could not even begin to comprehend.

    A just society requires us all to recognize that we are ALL responsible for each others’ welfare no matter if we are a panhandler, prisoner or prime minister.

  4. Thank you for the piece on correctional labour, El. I visted the Truro womens’ prison about 5 years ago, a few times. I remember seeing inmates working landscaping jobs as I was brought through to where my meeting was, but didn’t think much past that as to the actual system and how it was treating them like a slave work force. In the face of “Club Fed, where they watch HBO all day and live the high life”, thank you for some reality.

    Speaking of reality, I live very near where the photo of Spring Garden Road’s “super high end shopping district”. I’ve been here for just seven years, but I feel it’s home.
    The panhandlers don’t hassle me for money. I think my wheelchair makes me less threatening, and I have had tine to get to know many of them on differing levels.
    I’ve heard many reasons tk not give them money, and the best(worst?) is the Guy Who Takes A Cut of Their Money, Like A Pimp. Every once in a while someone spouts off about how the panhandlers are running a big scam on us Normal People, and they go around thencorner at the end of the day and like Kaiser Sosè, transform back to their real selves.
    I don’t carry cash, but every time someone asks for money for food, I immediately ask where can I take them to eat. We can say “don’t give them money, it just encourages them”, but if someone is willing to ask for food, which we all need to live, who am I to deny them that?
    I love my neighbourhood. I’m looking forward to what it’s going to look like after the work is done on the physical aspects. I hope that we also take into account the people of the neighbourhood- I consider the panhandlers the people of the neighbourhood as much as the folks who bus in from the suburbs to work at Nelson Place or the Scotiabank- and more is done than just moving them along. I believe their presence is a reminder of the inequalities in the system, and if it makes some of us uncomfortable, tough shit. Fox the problems, help the people.

    Thanks for writing a great piece every Saturday.