Languid days of potato-peeling, sweeping floors, afternoon naps, and reruns of Dog the Bounty Hunter may be over for inmates serving two years or less in Ontario’s provincial prisons. With a fall election pending, provincial Tories have announced their plan to put inmates to work.
The notion that inmates ought to work is far from novel, beginning with England’s notorious penal labour programs and the infamous chain gangs of the 1930’s in the southern American states, briefly resurrected in the 1990’s.
In the 1950’s Hollywood regaled us with prison movies where inmates made license plates and sewed mailbags.
Canada’s version of inmate labour has historically focused on prison farms, however, farming has not provided inmates with skills that translate into employment, resulting in the federal government’s closure of the farms, including the controversial shutdown of Frontenac Institution farm in Ontario last year.
The hue and cry from protesters was not enough to convince the Harper government that Canada’s mostly urban prison population would retire to the country post-incarceration. Some of Frontenac’s inmates are now servicing military vehicles, an occupation that is more likely to turn into stable employment.
Work for prisoners is an issue that finds consensus, no matter one’s political stripes.
On one side are the hardliners who decry a country club model of prison life, complete with rolling green lawns, hibachis, and picnic tables.
One need only remember the photos of party girl Karla Homolka in prison, wearing a short black cocktail dress with a bevy of inmate “girlfriends” to understand the perception that the “livin’ is easy” in some of Canada’s federal penitentiaries, where inmates who are sentenced to more than two years are warehoused.
Ferndale Prison in British Columbia even allowed disgraced Saskatchewan politician/murderer Colin Thatcher to ride his horses, when he was not teeing off on the prison golf course. The warden explained that inmates were engaged in landscaping and developing positive recreational activities.
Former prison nurse, Lydia Saunders, who worked at Mountain Institution in B.C. for three years, went public this month noting that American prisoners at Mountain Institution refer to their time as a “vacation” compared to American prisons. She also decried the coddling of prisoners, who complain incessantly and contact their lawyers for every perceived slight or breach of their so-called “human rights”.
Others point out that work plays a significant role in rehabilitation and restoring self-esteem for men and women that may not have done an honest day’s work in their life. Meaningful work for inmates may also decrease recidivism as an ex-con with work skills will not need to resort to crime to earn a living.
Certainly if inmates work and earn a reasonable wage, they can contribute to their living expenses, pay compensation to their victims and support the families they have left behind who survive on welfare, food banks and the goodwill of churches. Of course, inmate unions and bargaining rights will not be far behind and are now being pursued by prisoners in British Columbia.
As a kinder, gentler nation it is unlikely that Canadian politicians will adopt the far-right model espoused by maverick Sheriff Joe Arpaio of Arizona, best known for outfitting male inmates with pink underwear. He has also eliminated all inmate “perks”: no condoms, no smoking, no Playboy magazines, no weightlifting, and no conjugal visits.
In 1996 Sheriff Joe reintroduced work gangs to Arizona and to avoid discrimination lawsuits made sure female prisoners were included.
Just think – the next time you are bothered by a telephone solicitation it may be from an inmate working at a call centre.
Lawdiva aka Georgialee Lang