Last October, federal inmates went on strike when the Correctional Service of Canada cut their pay by 30%. The inmates claimed that the pay cut would render them unable to send money to family, to pay for visitors, and to pay for the prison basics like phone calls and the required tools to dig holes in the walls to escape. They pointed out that, since 1981, the rest of the world’s salaries have increased in absolute terms, while their rate of pay has decreased by 30%. This leaves them far behind when their prison terms finish and they have to rejoin society. At first, the government ignored the complaints, but now a group of Ontario inmates has a plan to amplify its voice. The inmates are taking the federal government to court.
Why would they take them to court? Don’t they have a pretty bad record there? Unfortunately, court is the only place where they can settle this dispute. If the inmates want to win this one, they’re going to have to do it in the government’s arena. This has all the makings of a great movie, doesn’t it? Let’s ruin it by making Adam Sandler the lead inmate. Just kidding, he was great in Grown Ups 2.
Regardless of who is involved, the inmates are suing the feds because, as they argue, the pay cuts violate their Charter rights to liberty and security of the person. Furthermore, the pay cuts reduce their ability to reintegrate into society. It seems the biggest issue is that inmates’ cost of living has increased, while their wages have decreased. The vast majority of inmates’ paltry wages go directly to room and board, while the remainder must cover pretty much everything else they do to stay alive and healthy while behind bars. For example, inmates are on the hook for personal hygiene products like soap and deodorant, and have to pay for over-the-counter drugs if they are sick. The CBC reports that most inmates make “far less than $3/day.” This suggests that prisons rival the PMO for top spot on Canada’s list of smelly, snotty places.
“Screw that,” you might say, “those crooks deserve to live in smelly, snotty prison because they broke our laws and are a danger to society!” That’s a compelling argument, but it has a major weakness. Very few prisoners are in jail for life because very few people commit heinous crimes. Therefore, almost every inmate is going to be released eventually. When they are released, they are more likely to return to crime if they have nothing to their name, especially if the relationships they valued before prison have fallen apart because they couldn’t afford to maintain them. They have no resources and no support networks, so they end up doing what they have to in order to survive. In short, forcing criminals to live in terrible conditions actually causes the crime you fear. It also costs the taxpayer (you!) more money to keep criminals in jail. It’s a big loss for you, and you haven’t done anything wrong. Some justice system, eh?
If these pay cuts are so unjust and so foolish, why is the government enforcing them in the first place? That’s a great question. Maybe it’s a half-baked attempt to deter crime by making prison seem less enjoyable. Maybe it’s a shortsighted attempt to appeal to victims of crime who don’t realize that impoverished criminals are more likely to reoffend. Then again, maybe we should just ask the government. Thankfully, someone did. When asked, a government official said, “it would be inappropriate to comment on matters that are currently before the courts.” That might have been a legitimate excuse in the past, but it’s now 2014. If we can’t talk about matters that are before the courts, we might find we can’t talk about any government business.