OTTAWA — Canada’s federal prison labour industry responded to the coronavirus pandemic by re-tooling workshops to make personal protective equipment (PPE) — so much that other government departments can now acquire their products.
Between April and early December, a total of 821,703 face masks were made by inmates employed under CORCAN, the Correctional Service of Canada’s (CSC) agency responsible for its prison labour industry, according to figures obtained by HuffPost Canada.
Of the total number of face masks made in Canadian institutions, 615,062 were disposable and 206,641 washable.
PPE production didn’t stop with face masks. Inmates also made 32,387 disposable gowns and 17,306 washable ones in the same time period.
Inmates have also made and installed portable and fixed barriers to modify clients’ workstations as offices adapted layouts in response to the pandemic.
Watch: New York prisoners to make hand sanitizer. Story continues below video:
CORCAN is an agency of the CSC that has been around for decades. Its stated purpose is to “aid the safe reintegration of offenders into Canadian society by providing employment and training opportunities.”
The agency makes money through partnerships with the public and private sectors as well as non-profits such as Habitat for Humanity, providing construction services or CORCAN-made products such as office furniture, dormitory beds, and bedding.
In the past, public sector clients have included the national defence department and the Canadian Coast Guard.
CSC spokesperson Isabelle Robitaille told HuffPost the production of PPE was spurred when “the shortage of items such as disposable and washable masks and gowns was evident.”
Robitaille said at the onset of the pandemic, the PPE items made by inmates were for use within the CSC.
“It should be noted that CORCAN washable masks are designed and meet the Government of Canada recommendation of a triple layer mask with a filtering middle layer.”
In addition to physical-distancing measures, Robitaille said masks are distributed to the imprisoned population and staff, and handwashing and sanitizing stations have been installed in the CSC’s 43 institutions and in community-based locations to control and prevent COVID-19 outbreaks.
“These include measures such as physical distancing measures, masks for offenders and staff, active health screening of anyone entering our sites, training 250 employees to conduct contact tracing and carrying out significant testing among inmates and staff, including asymptomatic individuals.”
The virus entered the Canadian prison system at the end of March. Prisoners’ advocates have repeatedly raised concerns about the potential for devastating COVID-19 outbreaks among inmates living in close quarters.
Robitaille added the agency has expanded the availability of its PPE products for clients “including federal government departments” to obtain CORCAN-made washable masks and gowns.
“The staff and offenders involved in the CORCAN employment and employability program are proud of their accomplishments that is allowing them to contribute to Canada’s response to the pandemic.”
Aside from inmates being employed in CORCAN, institutions also rely heavily on prison labour for normal operations, including cleaning and food services.
Approximately 1,067 inmates work in CORCAN operations on any given day, according to CSC statistics, and more than 3,700 inmates participate in on-the-job skills training annually.
The agency operates through a revolving fund, meaning it is given money by the CSC to make advance purchases of inventory to provide employment and training to offenders and fulfill its obligations to clients by providing products and services.
Under normal times, there’s a $5-million cap to funding. But because of the pandemic, CORCAN’s revolving fund was quadrupled this summer to $20 million to address operating deficits.
Transport Minister Marc Garneau explained the budgetary increase in the House of Commons in June, citing inventories of inmate-made products not being moved.
“CORCAN operates through a revolving fund. This provides it with a line of credit so that it can buy inventory ahead of time that will allow it to fulfil contracts with clients,” he said.
“Given the COVID-19 situation, we need to increase that line of credit to up to $20 million because the Correctional Service of Canada has more inventory on hand that it has not yet sold.”
Prison labour industry flagged last year for being outdated
Framed as a vocational-training program to prepare inmates for employment when they reintegrate into society, the agency has faced criticisms for being outdated and paying low wages.
Correctional Investigator Ivan Zinger pointed out in his annual report submitted to the public safety minister last year that CORCAN has failed to modernize and adapt to market trends and technological innovations.
“CSC must modernize its manufacturing sector to reflect labour market needs. This would include integrating digital/computer skills in vocational program delivery to ensure offenders are prepared for the current and future workplace.”
Zinger also suggested sexism is an issue Canada’s prison labour system needs to remedy.
“Most CORCAN employment for women continues to be within the textiles business line (83.5 per cent), continuing a trend that places women in gendered roles,” the report read.
“Textiles is far from one of the leading sectors of the Canadian economy.”
Inmates also used to respond to pandemic in U.S.
The use of prison labour to respond to the pandemic is not a Canadian anomaly.
In March, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced that prisoners at Washington County’s Great Meadow Correctional Facility would produce hand sanitizer to mitigate shortages.
According to Gothamist, inmates employed by the program have been historically paid 65 cents per hour. Other states such as California and Arizona have also relied on cheap prison labour during the pandemic.
Similar complaints about low inmate pay being exploitative has been heard north of the border about Canada’s prison labour industry, too.
In 2013, the then-Conservative government cut CORCAN wages by 30 per cent by increasing room and board fees and dropping bonuses for workers prompting inmates to go on strike.
Former public safety minister Vic Toews defended the decision at the time by citing the government’s priority in putting “the rights of victims and law-abiding Canadians first.”
Inmates averaged $3 per day in earnings. The highest daily wage was $6.90 at the time.
Federal institutions do not provide soap and shampoo. Inmates are expected to use their earnings to buy toiletries, which forced the CSC to make some changes during the pandemic.
Since handwashing is encouraged to protect oneself from COVID-19, the CSC said it has given out “additional soap, cleaning supplies and hand sanitizer to inmates and staff.”
Mass outbreak shuts down in-person visits in Ontario
At least 647 inmates have tested positive for COVID-19 in federal institutions during the pandemic as of Dec. 15. Nearly 9,900 inmates had been tested at the time.
Of the 647 confirmed cases, 551 recoveries have been reported and two related deaths. Ninety-four were reported as active cases at the time.
CSC Commissioner Anne Kelly told the House health committee in June that only symptomatic inmates were tested at the time.
On Thursday, the number of active cases exploded with 80 inmates testing positive at Joyceville Institution in Kingston, Ont.
The outbreak led to the suspension of in-person visits in all Ontario institutions to curb the spread of the virus among employees and in the prison population. The same initiative was taken in all Quebec institutions back in September.
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