Why Are Canadian Prisoners On Strike?

There is a palpable amount of unrest inside Canada’s prison system right now, and it’s happening on all levels. Inmates are on strike, Kingston Penitentiary is closed, and Don Jail is soon to follow.

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Oct 8 2013, 6:17pm


A retro postcard showing off the now defunct Kingston Penitentiary. via Stones: A Guide to the Social History of Kingston.

There is a palpable amount of unrest inside Canada’s prison system right now, and it’s happening on all levels. Currently the major issue is centred around the meager salaries inmates receive for the labour they do inside of our country’s prisons. These prisoners have gone from making $6.90 to $4.83 a day, even though the cost of essential items has shot up 700%. Inmates are expected to use their earnings to buy items the prison will no longer be providing them—such as shampoo, deodorant and stamps. As a result of this strange prisoner strike, corrections staff is now being forced to do the jobs of the inmates—like prepare food for the prison.

On top of all that, last weekend the maximum security Kingston Penitentiary officially moved out its last inmates —which is just another indicator of the massive cuts hitting Corrections Canada, and was part of a federal budget that planned to cut a total of $295 million in spending.

Later this year, the Don Jail will be joining Kingston Penitentiary in the Canadian prison graveyard when it closes its doors to make room for a new maximum security prison in South Etobicoke.

I spoke to some prison staff who are completely fed up, and say they feel like they are losing control of inmates who are becoming increasingly agitated about double bunking and poor living conditions. Many staff members inside of Canada’s correctional system are worried about what the future inside prison is going to look like if things don’t change soon.

“Cuts are killing us,” said Joe, a corrections officer at a maximum-security prison in Ontario. “In the last 25 years, maximum security prison’s larger units went from holding 20 people to now holding up to 60. There hasn’t been any infrastructure [update], they’ve just added more beds and jammed more people in, which isn’t fair to anyone.” 

Joe’s not a tiny guy. He’s a six-foot-fall “blue-shirt” who despite wearing a vest and carrying a baton and pepper spray, says for the first time in almost 25 years he no longer feels safe doing his job. He told me that biker inmates brag about having better weapons than him, and says the “white shirts” (management)—who rarely step foot near the prison cells—have all the power in their pleated pockets. Joe told me he’s angry and totally pissed off about working in a prison system that is in total chaos. “Labour relations are worse than they have ever been—mainly due to poor management and it’s honestly becoming dangerous.”

Like any business, there are various levels of management within the prison system and Joe tells me that more and more often, people who have no experience working inside the prison are taking top management positions and this is where some of the biggest problems have started to fester. Joe describes wardens as being the puppets of the ministry and says that the restrictions that have been placed on corrections officers continue to put everyone at risk. “We have lost our power to make decisions. We don’t want anyone getting hurt—but you need to be able to let them know who’s boss—and it’s clear, we aren’t the boss anymore.”


The soon to be defunct Don Jail in Toronto. via Flickr.

The Ontario prison system is no stranger to fucked up controversy. In 2007 a 19-year-old federal inmate Ashley Smith, hung herself in her segregation cell at Grand Valley Institution in Kitchener—while the guards stood by and watched. Ashley had originally been sent to a juvenile corrections facility for one month after throwing crab apples at a postal worker, and she wound up staying in the system for three years leading up to her death. The warden had ordered guards to stay out of her cell, no matter what. Scared to break orders after threats of being terminated, the guards obeyed. Even though the warden was subsequently fired, the tragedy has become a bleak reminder of a failing prison system.

“The minister’s office treats inmates like sacred cows in one sense, but then allows tragedies like a poor young girl to hang herself in front of staff,” says Joe.

Prison should never feel like Club Med, but some practical health, safety, and human rights standards need to exist. Earlier this year a 26-year-old woman gave birth inside the cell of her Ottawa-Carleton segregation cell. Why was this woman not brought to a delivery room?

Insiders say the mood inside some prisons is worsening with small riots taking place on a fairly regular basis as inmates are feeling more entitled and pissed off than ever.

“The ministry needs to figure this stuff out because poisoned labor relations are making it a very difficult working environment. The guys running the show have no connection to what’s happening on the inside—they’ve stopped caring about their staff,” says Joe. Just last month there was a “demonstration” at the Don Jail involving 33 inmates who had barricaded themselves into a single living unit for nearly four hours, refusing to listen to orders from guards, before a negotiator was called in to calm things down. 

I spoke to Brent Ross, a spokesperson for the ministry, but he couldn’t comment on what the prisoners were upset about—however, he did tell me that five Institution Crisis Intervention Teams were activated to negotiate with the agitated inmates who had also caused some damage to the common areas and flooded the toilets. Eventually, inmates were shipped off to other prisons.

“The minister’s office’s bureaucrats simply go into a situation to shut it up and have no regard for morale,” says Joe. “The jails are being run by social workers who have no idea what the dynamics of the inner workings of a prison are. We don’t want anyone getting hurt, but we need to be in control, and we aren’t.”

Joe says he’s not surprised to hear about strikes and riots and is certain they’re going to keep happening. “It’s just a matter of time before hostages will be taken and harmed.”

When I asked Joe what the biggest problem for guards these days was, he said it’s their loss of control while on the job. “It’s gotten to the point where we [corrections officers and other staff] are no longer running the jails. These guys [inmates] know that at the end of the day and they will get what they want.” I went through old issues to Lock Talk—a publication put out by the Ontario Public Service Employees Union (OPSEU)—to see what I might be able to come up with. I was surprised to find a report that indicated assaults on corrections officers was happening, on average, twice a day in Ontario, which is the highest rate in Canada—and that these riots (or “demonstrations”) have been sweeping across the province.

Prisons simply should not be overly dangerous places for the Canadians who work in them—and one would imagine we can do better than paying inmates $4 a day for their forced labour. It may be hard to sympathize with the more violent and psychotic offenders that are locked up in our prison system, but clearly if Canada’s inmates are striking en masse something has gone wrong. Even though crime rates are lower than they’ve ever been in Canada, the federal prison population is growing. It doesn’t seem that the near $300 million in planned budget cuts to our prison system is at all appropriate—and dissent among Canada’s prisoners will likely continue.

Follow Angela on Twitter: @angelamaries

More about prison:

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