Federal prison strike reveals longstanding labour issues

Inmate pay cuts will make prisons unsafe, increase recidivism

Anne Wyman

Imagine waking up tomorrow to a 30 per cent wage cut, mandated by law. If the cost of living stayed the same, you’d immediately begin budgeting. Which items would be the first to go? For people incarcerated in federal institutions in Canada, a 30 per cent pay reduction could mean being suddenly unable to afford shampoo or deodorant. It could mean only speaking to their families once a week.

At the beginning of October, this devastating situation became a reality for federal inmates in Canada when the federal government passed legislation slashing their already meagre pay by 30 per cent.

In an inspiring act of resilience, federal inmates responded by walking off their jobs and launching a nationwide prison strike. For nearly all of October, inmates refused work in protest of these drastic pay cuts, until the strike was temporarily halted on Oct. 29. “In a letter sent to the federal commissioner of corrections, Don Head, the inmates are now asking that officials begin discussions with them and their families over the pay cut and other changes underway in the correctional system,” states the CBC.

Until the mobilization of this strike, inmates helped the prison system function by providing their labour. For far less than minimum wage, they completed necessary tasks such as cooking meals, cleaning, building maintenance, and garbage collection. The absence of prisoner labour in these areas during the strike increased the workload of the prison staff, as corrections officers worked the same jobs formerly performed by prisoners to maintain daily life on the inside.

The government’s CORCAN manufacturing operations inside the prisons ceased to operate under the strike, and the government cancelled the program offering incentive pay to prisoners meeting quotas. “CORCAN has contracts to produce textiles and furniture as well as repair vehicles for government departments and other agencies,” reports the CBC. Prisoners supply the labour, working for far below the legal minimum wage for any other working Canadian citizen.

The former rate of pay for incarcerated individuals was originally established in 1981, when minimum wage on the outside was $3.55 an hour. Inmates earned at most $6.90 per day, with the daily average being closer to $3. This meagre amount, which factored in a deduction from inmates for room, board, and clothing, was hardly enough to survive on, let alone send home to family members or save for a pending release.

In the last 32 years, the cost of living on the inside has increased 725 per cent, but inmates’ wages have remained stagnant. Inmates pay for many basic amenities such as shampoo and deodorant. They pay for stationery and pens to write letters home and they pay to make phone calls to their families. A canteen purchase totalling around $8.40 in 1986 would cost about $60.27 today. In 1981, a half-hour phone call would cost an inmate 11 cents; it costs $6 today. With the new average earning at $2.10 per day, it would require most inmates to work for almost three full days just to phone their loved ones.

This pay cut will only increase tension within the prison systems, creating a fertile breeding ground for violence, as commodities become rarer and less affordable. This new rate of pay will inevitably make prisons a more dangerous place for prisoners and guards alike.

Years of poverty survived in prison will directly inhibit the potential reintrigration of inmates into communities upon their release. At these wages, prisoners are being released far below the poverty line, with no money saved up for an apartment or room rental, to families they’ve been unable to financially support. A fair working wage for prisoners is crucial for rehabilitation and neccessary to lower recidivism rates.

The Prisoners ’ Strike Support Network is a local organization raising strike pay for prisoners incarcerated at Stony Mountain Institution. Their fundraising goal of $3,919 would be enough to offer a one-time gift of $6.90 to every prisoner, one day’s pay at their former wage. You can donate online at: http://www.indiegogo.com/projects/prison-strike-solidarity-fund