Smartpods and stupid investments: Who benefits from prison labour in New Brunswick?

Written by Jordan House on September 10, 2017

Dorchester Penitentiary. Photo: Wikimedia.

At the end of August, The Financial Post published an article overviewing a court challenge by federal prisoners seeking to reverse cuts to their wages. The article questions the efficacy of CORCAN, Canada’s prison industry program—a program The Post is hardly the first to criticize.

Earlier this year CORCAN came under fire from the federal prison watchdog. The Office of the Correctional Investigator told the CBC that CORCAN is largely failing in its mandate to provide Canada’s prisoners with the skills and training that would help them find employment upon release. In the words of watchdog Ivan Zinger, “They have to retool the entire CORCAN industry to reflect the 21st century and not factories of the 50s and 60s.”

Meanwhile, a New Brunswick start-up—Smartpods—is getting off the ground thanks to an assortment of government handouts and prisoner labour supplied by CORCAN. The company bills its flagship product as the first and only “active motion workstation” designed to move “at different intervals, creating different work levels and guiding employees to move – all without distraction or work disruption.” In plain English, it’s a desk that moves by itself—slowly. The company purports that their workstations, which come with a $2,500 price tag, boost workplace productivity and improve employee health and happiness. While Smartpods are advertised on CORCAN’s website, the Smartpod website and promotional material makes no mention of the fact that their products are built by prisoners making about 30 cents an hour (CORCAN’s financials aren’t public, so it’s unclear exactly how much Smartpods pays CORCAN to supply this labour).

Thus far, Smartpods is a New Brunswick success story. It embodies the potential of homegrown innovation and entrepreneurial sprit that successive New Brunswick governments have desperately asserted would be the solution to the province’s economic woes. The story of the company, however, reveals exactly how exploitive, ideologically motivated, and ultimately misguided the Province’s entrepreneurial development strategy actually is.

New Brunswick needs to invest in its citizens broadly—for example through the expansion of services and by regulating resource extraction—rather than subsidizing a select few ‘disruptors’ who might be the next Irvings or Olands. And it certainly shouldn’t be encouraging that start ups largely funded from the public purse exploit prison labour at the expense of both prisoners and the public.

CORCAN and Prison Labour in New Brunswick

CORCAN has faced criticism for years. In 2013, The Globe and Mail obtained a memo prepared within the Public Safety Department and addressed to then-Conservative Public Safety Minister, Vic Toews. The memo asserted that training “inmates for the jobs of yesterday, or for non-existent jobs, or for jobs in already over-resourced fields in competition with non-offenders is a waste of scarce resources and counterproductive to public safety.” In response, CORCAN stated that it was working on a plan to be more responsive to Canadian labour markets, and that it would implement the plan within the year. Given the recent remarks by the Correctional Investigator, it seems clear that CORCAN has not succeeded in that effort.

More recently, in the fall of 2016 CORCAN was in the news after its was accused of “tokenism” and “exploitation” over its shady “fur and shearling” program, which hires indigenous prisoners to produce drums, moccasins, dream catchers, and other ‘traditional’ handicrafts. The program markets its products as “handcrafted by Canada’s First Nations, Inuit and Metis people,” but omits the fact that these craftspeople are among the one-quarter of the federal prison population that are Aboriginal (disturbingly, the incarceration rate for indigenous women is even higher—Aboriginal people make up about 4% of the general population, but Aboriginal women make up more than 35% of the female prison population).

Strangely, the fur and shearling goods are not available through CORCAN’s regular product catalogue, but rather through a separate, unofficial (and frankly, amateur) website. In the words of Jean-Philippe Crete, a PhD student at the University of Alberta studying the colonial role of the Canadian criminal justice system, “It is problematic that the state is hiring prisoners to reproduce sacred objects of their own culture and selling it to mass markets.” In an APTN article, Cold Lake First Nation and Metis artist, Dawn Marie Marchand, accused CORCAN of exploiting indigenous labour “for profit in the prison industrial complex.”

CORCAN, like prison labour more generally, raises serious questions of unfree labour in Canada. While prisoners aren’t formally forced to work, failure to work or perform well at work could mean violating correctional plans—which jeopardizes a prisoner’s ability to ‘cascade’ to a lower security level or obtain early release.

And, like everyone else, prisoners face real economic pressures. Canadian prisoners increasingly have to pay for necessary items which were once provided free (for example shampoo, toothpaste, and Advil). They likewise have to pay increasingly high fees for phone calls—despite common sense correctional policy that says maintaining relationships outside of prison is key to reintegration.

Prisoners’ wages are, unsurprisingly, lower than low. As the Post story notes, after more than a 30 year wage freeze, wages for prisoners were cut by 30% in 2013. Now, prisoners earn a maximum of $4.83 a day. The Office of the Correctional Investigator notes that, for Canada’s prisoners, a “bottle of Buckley’s cough syrup costs more than a day’s pay.” Prisoners also pay a portion of their wages to room and board, as well as to phone system fees and fees to their inmate welfare committees.

In short, Canada’s prisoners subsidize their own imprisonment (as well as other government agencies) through their low-wage labour. It’s not clear how this in any way helps with rehabilitation or reintegration. Prisoners, for their part, are aware of this fact. In October of 2013, prisoners in New Brunswick, along with those in British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Ontario and Quebec, participated in a peaceful work stoppage to protest cuts to their wages. At the time the head of the Lifer’s Group at the Atlantic Institution in Renous, NB was quoted as saying, “When prisoners start getting released into the community with no money and have to resort to crime, how is that in the interest of public safety?” The Correctional Investigator agreed with this sentiment in his 2015-2016 annual report, saying that a lack “of resources upon release remains a significant barrier to remaining crime-free after a period of incarceration.” It should be noted that the vast majority of prisoners in Canada will, in fact, be released.

In New Brunswick, CORCAN runs programs in both the Atlantic Institution, in Renous, and Dorchester Penitentiary in Dorchester. It also runs a “Community Industry” facility in Moncton, as well as regional sales offices—a mere 750m away from the Smartpod offices.

How Smart is Banking on Smartpods?

While a majority of CORCAN’s contracts are with the public sector and non-profit organizations like Habitat for Humanity, Smartpods is one of CORCAN’s private sector contracts. . The financial backing for Smartpods, though founded in 2014 by Leon DesRoches, seems to have significantly come from the government. Smartpods received a $120,900 investment from the Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency in 2014, and another $274,313 in March, 2015.[12] In 2015, Smartpods also won a “Build in Canada Innovation Program” award to help the company prepare its products for market through the federal government’s Office of Small and Medium Enterprises. Smartpods customers, seem to likewise be the public. The majority of the clients listed on the company’s website are public entities such as the federal government, the RCMP, and Ambulance New Brunswick.

Given that only 7.9% of employed New Brunswickers work in manufacturing, it might seem surprising that the company doesn’t boast that its products are “made in NB.” This raises the question of what jobs, exactly, are the prisoner-workers at Smartpods being trained for? As the government itself notes, “With both annual attrition (deaths and retirements) and job growth expected to trend somewhat down from 2015 to 2024, total job openings in the [manufacturing] Sector are forecasted to decrease.” How do prisoners who will be released in NB benefit from working for Smartpods? How does the NB public?

We need a provincial development strategy that invests a sustainable economic infrastructure, rather than subsidizing the few big firms that own the province and pouring money into a few entrepreneurial “disruptors” which can do little to improve people’s lives. Prison labour should have real rehabilitative value, and prisoner-workers should have all the rights of ‘free labour’—meaning, for one, being paid minimum wage and having the right to join and form unions.

If anyone is going to benefit from prison labour in New Brunswick it should be, first and foremost, prisoners themselves, and secondly the public. Private entrepreneurs, especially those gambling with public money, shouldn’t be on that list.

Jordan House is a member the of the New Brunswick diaspora in Toronto. He is a PhD student at York University, where he is completing a dissertation on prison labour in Canada.

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