An excerpt of this article was originally published in our newsletter Over the Wall, Issue 1 (Spring 2014).
Resistance to Prison Pay Cuts: An Account of Accountability
By Jarrod Shook of Collins Bay Institution
On May 9th, 2012 the former Minister of Public Safety Vic Toews made a speech to announce that (according to his speaking notes) “criminals have all the rights” and that the Conservative Party of Canada would be responding to this by increasing offender accountability through a 30% food and prison cell accommodation tax on the already meagre inmate pay of $6.90 per day; and by eliminating altogether the $2.20 per hour incentive payments which were provided to prison labourers who worked for the Crown Special Operating Agency CORCAN in facilities that operate in 31 of the Correctional Service Canada’s (CSC) 57 Institutions where prisoners contribute productive labour in four business lines including textiles, manufacturing, construction and services such as printing and laundry.
Section 74 of the Corrections and Conditional Release Act (CCRA) which governs the CSC states that: “The service shall provide inmates with the opportunity to contribute to decisions of the service affecting the inmate population as a whole…”
Therefore, not long after the announcement was made, some bureaucrat at CSC fired up powerpoint and put together a neat little presentation. A couple clicks later along with a few printed pages and prisoners were told that these measures were being implemented, but, they could contribute their input into the decision. This is what CSC calls consultation.
Consultation might be a noun but its active form is a verb, to consult, meaning to deliberate together; to confer or come together to compare views. I cannot say how this “consultation” process went at each of the 57 institutions CSC manages or what the views were of each and every one of the 14,000 prisoners in the federal system, but I can say that at Collins Bay there was an overwhelming response from the population regarding these measures, which were carefully articulated and states many thoughtful and honest reasons against imposing the cuts; ranging from the extent to which it would exacerbate an already tense, conflictive and competitive environment with regard to limited resources, to how it would impact reintegrative potential upon release and the ability of prisoners to provide what little they could for their loved ones in the community and maintain these ties thought correspondence, telephone calls and the financially burdensome visitation and private family visit program.
While I was not a member of the inmate committee at that time (nor am I now) I am aware that these responses were provided to the upper management of the prison with hopes that they would be considered. I would deduce, given the similarly situated condition of prisoners across Canada that the reasons against said measures would vary only slightly from region to region and that the consultation process proceeded similarly.
Sixteen entire months went by with little or no reference to the status of the measures from the time they were first announced when as if spontaneously the Warden of Collins Bay called a special meeting to announce that the accountability measures, or as he put it, our contribution to Canada’s Deficit Reduction Action Plan (DRAP), would be taking effect on October 1, 2013. While this didn’t exactly come as a complete shock to the prison population, it very much caught prisoners by surprise as no such response had been provided indicating that any consideration had been given to the reasonable input which prisoners had provided regarding the potential impact of the cuts. It had thus become apparent that the entire consultation process was really just a form of lip service which had little or no bearing on the decision-making process to begin with.
October 1st arrived along with the 30% Food and Accommodation Tax and elimination of incentive pay for CORCAN workers. Prisoners at Collins Bay and other institutions in Canada thus refused to attend work or programs; Prisoners were on strike. This caught the attention of the CBC who in an invaluable report by Maureen Brosnahan brought this fact to the national stage, this raising the consciousness of prisoners all across Canada who from coast to coast joined in the strike. The report indicated, unbeknownst to the Collins Bay population that the pay rate had already been set in 1981 based upon a review by a parliamentary committee which had already factored in a deduction for room and board. We also found out that CSC’s own figures indicated that costs had risen 700% since that time on top of the fact that, prisoners are now required to provide for their own hygiene items, stamps and stationary. Essentially the government would be “double-dipping” as one inmate committee chairman saw it.
It was clear that as a cost saving measure this plan would have little to no bearing on the already exorbitant nearly 3 billion dollar annual CSC budget and even the Correctional Investigator called the move “insensitive and short-sighted,” a “nickel and dime change” that was being unfairly applied because it was unlikely to generate much opposition.
Prior to the commencement of the work strike, prisoners at Collins Bay and other institutions had been in contact with legal representation to discuss possible ways of addressing their concerns in the most reasonable and mature way that they could see fit; not wanting to play into the way the Conservative government typically brands prisoners as an unruly and unreasonable group who, according to remarks made during the strike by the newest front man for the Conservative government’s public safety file, Steven Blaney, offended hard working Canadians with their peaceful work strike. On the advice and guidance of Todd Sloan, a lawyer from the Ottawa area, a letter was drafted to the Commissioner of Corrections Mr. Don Head which outlined no demands or thorny rhetoric, but just a brief outline of our basic concerns with the measures, a reminder that all of the actions we had been taking were peaceful, and a suggestion that possibly we could resolve this issue if we could just have a “reasonable discussion between offenders, their families, community support providers, as well as staff and management in order to develop an effective and fair policy regarding incentives and related allowances and fees.” Pending a resolution of the issues we requested that the pay cuts be suspended and that as a sign of good faith we too would suspend the work strike until November 20, 2013.
In the meantime, prisoners proceeded to address the issue using administrative grievances and reasonable requests for a waiver of the deduction under section 104 of the Corrections and Conditional Release Regulations (CCRR). These administrative representations were met with expected rejections but were accumulated as a show of our willingness to explore and exhaust all of the available mechanisms to hopefully effect a change in this policy. With regard to these administrative grievances the service defended its decision by retreating to the CCRA which provides the legislative authority for CSC to impose deductions and the original endorsement which these measures were given in May 2012 by the Minister of Public Safety, stating that: “By paying for these costs, inmates would now be assuming the responsibility for some of the expenses related to their incarceration, thus making them more accountable for their actions.” The consultation process too was discussed and CSC affirmed that “feedback provided by offenders was taken into consideration prior to the implementation of the initiatives.”
Beyond the administration front, prisoners also attempted to reach out to the opposition political parties expressing their concerns about the cuts. These political approaches were with the hope that maybe we could get the matter before Parliament and that public pressure mught cause at the very least some flexibility. It appeared that both of the major opposition parties were sympathetic to us but with a Conservative majority in the house it was futile.
The November 20, 2013 deadline came and went and the Commissioner of Corrections showed little or no interest in our reasonable request for a mature discussion and in his response to our letter simply parroted the line that the cuts were a result of government austerity programs and that as far as CSC is concerned we were all consulted about these changes long ago and our views were taken into consideration.
So we acted in good faith, explored and exhausted every reasonable option available to us, and attempted to resolve our issues in a transparent, frank and mature fashion and we weren’t even given a chance to come to the table. Other institutions across Canada were similarly situated and thus faced the same questions with how to proceed next.
Following that snub, much of the moral interest in a continued work strike had waned. However, some institutions and individuals never did go back to work during the period of a suspended work strike though some individuals were coerced into a return to work with the threat that not following their correctional plan could result in transfers including higher security; dismissal from programs that individuals needed for release planning purposes; loss of privileges; loss of jobs; disciplinary charges for those considered to be ‘antagonistic’ or ‘inciting’; and adverse effects on parole applications, among other reprisals.
Having exhausted all of the available internal means and mechanisms of addressing this issue as of March 2014 the Inmate Commitees at institutions across Canada continue to express interest in pursuing this matter through litigation as well as other creative means.
This process thus far has revealed many contradictions on the part of the Government and the CSC, not least of which includes this message that we need to learn about accountability and our social obligations which much be demonstrated by our paying for the costs of our incarceration and with eliminating payments that we received for our productive labour. If our response to this clearly unreasonable and highly political policy shift reveals anything it is the fact that we have gone to great lengths to demonstrate accountability by being reasonable, mature and responsible as we approach our issue in a direct but fair way. It is a shame that this has seemed to have been overlooked. But we have not forgotten.
I keep hearing this metaphor being thrown around about how the pendulum has simply swung the other way (presumably to the right) in the Canadian Criminal Justice System; as if the laws, policies and practices that govern the police, courts and particularly the prisons in Canada are somehow comparable to some free floating mechanism, simply oscillating back and forth between extremes under the guidance of some unseen natural law.
The truth is there is no such whimsical force at work in society dictating the deserts of the destitute and downtrodden, no pendulum, but rather real people with particular ideological leanings that support a particular agenda which manifests itself with policies like the one we prisoners are attempting to resist with our peaceful actions.
To think that this occurs in any other fashion is to be deluded into thinking that one is powerless over the direction that this system is heading and that the outcome is inevitable. Despite the disappointment I have seen with our reasoned approach to this particular issue I would caution my reader to remember that there is nothing inevitable about this system. The Canadian criminal justice system serves a purportedly public function, it is therefore patently in the hands of the public to seize control of it and direct it as they see fit. If you are among the 62% of Canadians who did not endorse the Conservative brand of politics in the last election or of the 39% of the cynical and disenfranchised who opted out of the vote alogether maybe you might count yourself as one among the many in this ongoing struggle. We would certainly welcome your support. The prison is but one striking symbol in society of the chains that we all wear.