Full Article: Letter to Warden at Collins Bay Institution

An excerpt of this letter was originally published in our newsletter Over the Wall, Issue 1 (Spring 2014).

ATTN: Warden Jackson
RE: Proposed 30% pay reduction and $120 savings acount minimum increase

I am writing this letter anonymously, instead of making a formal inmate protest as directed by Todd Sloan, in the hopes that not making a nuisance of myself or a veiled threat to proceed to an onerous en masse grievance process will lend some weight to my feelings on the matter of the recently imposed 30% pay reduction implemented on inmate wages as part of the Correctional Service Canada’s “Accountability Measures.” I was one of the lucky men afforded the Warden’s time on this matter during our nearly four week long strike. While I agreed with him on most of what he had to say, there are a few considerations that I want the administration to be aware of that I was reticent to discuss in front of my peers at that time. My thoughts are purely impersonal, as you shall see, and concern the broader picture of Canadian society’s ultimate aims in the operation of a Judicial and Correctional system. These aims go far beyond simple financial considerations, and while it would be nice to be able to represent the world in dollars and cents, certain humanitarian concerns can never have a price attached to them.

At the end of the day CSC is mandated first and foremost to ensure the safety of the general public. A punitive approach to Corrections implies that the longer a convicted criminal spends behind bars, and furthermore, the tougher his time while there, the more reticent he will be in the future to commit further crimes. I believe that this medieval and two-dimensional attitude has been dismissed by most authorities on criminality as ultimately detrimental to the eventual reintegration of the incarcerated population into society. While I do not have Mr. Shook’s volumes of statistics and references at my fingertips, I think that most people would agree that longer and tougher sentences do not produce better citizens, instead they produce better inmates. And an open ended, heavy handed correctional system is one that incurs greater costs to society and individuals in a number of different ways I hope to outline below.

It was 1982 or so when we were given anywhere from $2.50 to $6.90 per day for work around the prison, including as cleaners, tutors and students at the school, range reps and garbage men. At the time, inmates were supposed to use the funds thus earned to buy the health care and hygiene items not ever or no longer provided by the institution, as well as pay for our cable, phone calls, stamps and stationary to keep in contact with loved ones. The money is also supposed to help us start over when we got out so that we were not put onto the street without resources. We have never had a raise in the 30 years we have been paid for our work, although the price of goods has increased quite a bit. We are told to save for when we get out, communicate with our support network outside often and regularly, and be “accountable” for the extra things we need like shampoo and Tylenol. It is thus ironic to see our pay cut as part of the Conservatives’ “Accountability Measures.” While the government claims that we are now paying for “room and board” it is really just a pay cut, as the $2.50-6.90/day already took that into account and that is why it is so low a pay rate. Lastly, the pay cut moves away from a system of positive reinforcement for good behaviour and hard work to one of punishment for those who deviate from the system.

How will a 30% reduction in my own inmate wages affect me? I am very happy to say that it will affect me personally very little. I am lucky to have a broad, deep, and secure support network that can easily make up for any shortfalls I may have due to the recent changes. I will never have to decide between deodorant, Tylenol, stamps and phone calls. My circumstances put me in a small minority within these walls, though I by no means represent a typical case. I furthermore have no dependent children, unlike so many of my peers here. What I do have is staggering debt in the tens of thousands of dollars related to the costs of my legal defence. I also lost nearly everything I owned when I was arrested and had to quickly liquidate my apartment with the help of some family and friends. I can not afford to pay storage fees for my material possessions while I am not earning a proper wage, and I am lucky that a few cherished items were saved from the curbing of my things. I think that in these last two considerations, those of incurred debt and the loss of material wealth, I am not alone at all, and most of the inmates of the Correctional Service Canada have undergone the same difficulties during their time in the judicial system. It is thus even harder for us to start over when we are released.

I applaud the Ministry’s efforts to better prepare inmates for their return to society by increasing the mandatory savings minimum for inmate accounts. Many of us indeed have to entirely start over and have limited financial support available on the outside upon our releases, especially since the province has drastically reduced the amount of the Social Assistance “Start Up” funding available. Every penny can help in the urgent matter of establishing oneself in the community. It is thus perhaps a good idea that the Ministry ensure that a certain minimum resource be created before too many chocolate bars are purchased prior to the reintroduction to society. One must also consider, though, the fact that a number of inmates rely on the money in their savings accounts to help pay for incidentals such as hygiene and postage.

The proposed increase of the minimum inmate savings level from $80 to $200 in January will mean that a number of inmates will have to come up with an additional $120 before they can use the money that slowly accumulates in or is sent from the outside to their savings accounts. There will thus soon be a hurdle of $120 that will have to be undertaken, either by months and months of our own labour at the newly reduced rates, or by the generosity of people on the outside who may already feel the pinch of having to support the wage shortfall of someone here so that they can keep paying for regular contact. Either way, someone must provide $120 before outside funding for communication expenses can be accessed. It amounts to a $120 tax on the poor. What this measure really affects is an added punishment on the poorer inmates who have less community support to send money in to help cover the communication costs for phone and postage that we are responsible for. It is shameful that the government, through the Ministry, is putting what amounts to a $120 tax on fathers talking to their kids, payable by people earning much less than minimum wage or by a class of women operating as single mothers.

A great many of the inmates have fathered multiple children and left them in the care of various mothers or grandparents who either do not work or are among the working poor. Every dollar counts for families like that. There is less money currently being sent out of federal prisons to families and inmates might now need to have money sent in to stay in contact with their support networks as we are encouraged and even required to do by our Parole Officers to maintain and prepare “Community Support” for our release. The money that these poor families send in to the correctional system comes at a high price, perhaps forcing a decision between shoes or clothes or food for growing school aged children. These poorest of families already suffer the loss of a bread-earner and they now have a new hurdle to overcome in their support of their incarcerated kin. The problem with the 30% pay cut is that it becomes a further punishment on economically disadvantaged families who, struggling and burdened as they already are, will be forced to fill in the gaps.

Perhaps a process might be created that can allow certain families to have costs subsidized by a lesser “room and board” pay deduction, or a means of applying for relief or exemption from the pending $120 increase in the required savings minimum. I leave it to the bureaucrats to work that part out with the faith that at-risk and needy Canadian families are considered stakeholders in this process.

Sincerely,

A Concerned Citizen at Collins Bay Institution

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