1700 words; 6 minutes to read.
This is the eighth in an ongoing series of posts sent to us by a former prisoner who wishes to remain anonymous. Previous posts in this series are here (#1) here (#2) here (#3) here (#4) here (#5) here (#6) and here (#8).
The federal prison system in Canada requires virtually all prisoners, regardless of age or status, to have some kind of assigned work. The problem is that meaningful work is not generally available. Work is not used as an incentive to improve, but as a further way to impose punishment. And there is virtually no skill development through work such that prisoners might benefit after their release.
In the minimum security prison where I landed after 3 weeks of solitary confinement in a provincial jail, and 11 weeks in the ‘assessment unit’, prisoner work assignments were handled by something called the ‘work board’. Within my first few days there, I was called in to meet with this group, which consisted in my case of my prison parole officer, the staff assistant for institutional programs, the prisoner administrator who handles prisoner payroll, and the guidance counselor in the prison school. At the time I didn’t know any of these people nor was I given any introductions or any explanation of what they did, or of how the job system worked in the institution. All this I learned, as usual in prison, from other prisoners – which means that a fair amount of what I was told was inaccurate.
Expected to work
The work board did tell me that all prisoners, no matter their age, were expected to work and if I did not get a job, even though I was retired in the community before my sentence began, I would be regarded as non-compliant with my correctional plan which would make it very difficult to get parole. Also I would receive only $1 per day ‘pay’ rather than the $2.50 that prisoners who don’t work normally get. I eventually met several men well into their 70s who were also required to work. A few prisoners are exempt from work because of physical disability, and a few others simply refused to work and just accepted the penalty – usually because they were close to their statutory release date and would not be applying for parole.
The work board told new prisoners how important it is to find a job – or rather how you would be punished if you didn’t find one. In this prison, prisoners were invariably urged to take a job the two commercial enterprises the prison ran, both of which made things for the federal government. I later learned that these jobs were suggested to all new prisoners because these places had contracts to fulfill yet were invariably short of workers. More on this below.
How to find a job in prison
I told the work board that given my education level I hoped to work in the school; I had heard about ‘tutoring’ positions while in the assessment unit. I was told that there might not be an open position there. However even by this time I had learned not to believe most of what I was told by any prison official.
Jobs for prisoners are supposed to be posted on a bulletin board but in reality many never were. Also those jobs that were posted never had a date on them, and since the bulletin boards were rarely updated, you never knew if a job posting there was real, or was from six months ago. Some of the jobs posted when I arrived were still posted when I left a year later. The better jobs, on the other hand, were rarely posted; you found out about them through word of mouth, as I did about the tutoring position. So in practice you found a job mostly by talking to various people- mainly prisoners – and learning what they did and how they had found that position.
Few good jobs available
A major problem with work in prison is the very limited range of jobs available. That is even more the case in medium and maximum security, but it’s a major problem even in minimum, where prisoners are allowed to do more things.
The most common jobs are cleaners, most of whom are assigned specific spaces to clean every day; grounds workers, who look after things like garbage and snow removal; caregivers, who look after prisoners in wheelchairs or those who otherwise required assistance with daily living; and prisoners who work in the contract services mentioned earlier.
In a minimum prison where prisoners buy and cook their own food (a subject for a future post) each house where prisoners lived also had a ‘shopper’ who did all the grocery purchasing. This was considered a job even though it involved no more than 4 or 5 hours per week to do.
Working in contract services
A few prisoners liked the contract services because they preferred jobs that involved a real day’s work, as they helped the weeks go more quickly. Some prisoners had experience in these areas as well – for example one of the men who came over from the AU at roughly the same time as I did was an auto mechanic, so working on vehicles was a good fit for him.
However for the most part the contract services were consistently short of workers because the work there was much harder than most other jobs yet didn’t pay any more or offer any other perks. All of these contracted services were off the main site and, unlike most on-site jobs, actually required 6 hours a day at work. Many of the on-site jobs took much less time and when not working you could be doing other things such as sleeping or socializing.
Low effort the goal for most
For most prisoners the goal was to find a job that took as little effort as possible, of which there were many. Quite a few of the cleaners needed no more than an hour or so each day to perform their duties. This situation existed because of the requirement to have enough jobs for all the prisoners but many tasks were not allowed to be performed by prisoners either because of security concerns or because many prisoners had very limited skills. This meant that jobs had to be created which didn’t have real duties. So a cleaner might have the task of cleaning a couple of hundred square feet as his daily task. A prisoner who’s job was to help someone with a wheelchair move around the prison might only be needed a few times a day for a few minutes at a time – so that work also meant you were on call evenings and weekends.
Going to school was also considered a half-time job. This meant that some prisoners were content to stay in school because that required less effort and attention than doing something else. Teachers were often willing to collude in this; it was one small way in which they could make life a little easier for some prisoners who had major challenges. (It was of no benefit to the teachers, since their class sizes were capped and there was always a waiting list to get into the school.)
No effort to create more interesting work
The institution displayed no inventiveness in thinking about potential jobs. For example, after a time working in the school I could see a number of ways in which other prisoner jobs could support the school program – for example by employing prisoners to teach other languages or other skills from their lives out of prison – which many had. Creating such jobs would also have enriched the school program to a significant degree. Another possibility would have been to create positions for prisoners to do some of the things that would have improved life in the institution, such as helping with visits. One prisoner I knew wanted to create a writing group; that could have been a job assignment but instead he was denied permission even to set up the group, though in the end we did it anyway without asking anyone.
The general lethargy of the institution and the lack of interest in trying to improve anything meant that no real effort was made to change the range of jobs. Instead, the available work that could be done by just about anyone, such as cleaning, was divided into very small chunks to create enough jobs for everyone. Thus a prisoner might have the task of cleaning an area each day that was effectively the size of one room in an average house. This was not going to take anyone very many hours!
There were a few jobs – perhaps 10-15% of the total – that were considered ‘better’ in that they actually required use of one’s brain. One of these was the job I got, as a tutor in the school – yet another story as to how that came about. There were a few other administrative jobs such as working in the canteen or as a purchasing assistant. There were three paid positions on the Inmate Committee (more on that also later), and a few in the library. One of my housemates was the inmate grievance coordinator, an interesting if frustrating position. The chaplain had a prisoner assistant. Many of these better jobs were held by lifers, because they, quite reasonably, were given seniority or because they had simply been around long enough to get the good jobs as they came available, and then stayed in them.
In all these ways the work world was characteristic of the prison as a whole. There were no standard processes and nobody told you how anything worked. You had to figure it out on your own, and find out the degree to which information you had been given was accurate. You could, however, be punished for violating the rules, even if you had never been told what they were. Nobody seemed to care about making the process any better. And certainly nobody cared if prisoners’ jobs were in any way meaningful to them or helpful in terms of their rehabilitation.
A future post will also take up the bizarre way in which prisoners were ‘paid’ for their work.