Roy Green: When Doing Time isn’t Wasting Time (in federal prisons)

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Preparing to visit the shop floor of a Canadian business success story I handed over my wallet, keys and cell phone. I stood still for a personal security wand check and what items I was permitted to retain (my belt, for example) were subjected to separate examination.  Finally, after signing in under the watchful eye of security personnel imposing steel doors slid aside.  I was about to enter the world of Corcan.

Corcan operates under some of the tightest security provisions in the nation.  Not because its products are cutting edge exotic with billions of dollars in secret information to be kept from competitors, but rather because the entire Corcan workforce is not only identified as a threat, but also stands convicted of a wide range of criminal offences. 

Corcan is a behind federal prison walls business enterprise which has nothing to do with the stereotypical image of offenders involved in the manufacture of licence plates.  

Inmates accepted for the Corcan program pursue recognized vocational training certificates in trades like residential framing technician, welder, millwright, automotive painter, truck and bus technician, auto body repair, carpentry, cabinet making, professional cook and electrician. Useful skills which upon release from incarceration can and do translate into gainful employment, allowing an offender to escape becoming a continuing contributor to recidivism statistics, or what a member of the inmates committee at Joyceville federal prison described on air some years ago as “we’re all here doing life, two to four years at a time.”  Most CORCAN shops are ISO-certified (International Organization for Standardization) and on any given day Corcan employs more than 2000 offenders. 

Like most Canadians I had no knowledge of this prison program until last year receiving an appointment to the Corcan advisory board from federal Public Safety Minister Vic Toews.  

As my fellow board members and I visit federal prisons (not the most comfortable of experiences), speak to invariably enthusiastic and motivated professional instructors, witness state of the art equipment operated by inmates clearly invested in their own training programs, it becomes clear Corcan is among the best rehabilitation options available and clearly worthy of public support.

In fiscal 2011-12, Corcan delivered more than 2.6 million hours of on-the-job training to offenders.  That number is projected to increase to 2.75 million hours for fiscal 2012/13.  Requirements for offenders to be quite literally hired to participate in Corcan programs include an excellent record of behaviour as well as a full commitment to individual correctional plans and a Grade 12 education, or the willingness to accomplish this academic standard while in prison.  Considering a day on-the-job can be as long as 12 hours, the inmate engaged in Corcan trades training is committing to a demanding and focussed rehabilitation path.

Corcan’s larger operations are located in regional prisons for men.  Five regional women’s prisons also each offer programs.

Correctional Service of Canada explains Corcan is a trademark registered in 1980, which today represents the prison industries program within CSC.  Since 1992, Corcan has conducted its affairs as a Special Operating Agency, permitting it both the authority and flexibility required to function as a separate entity, while still under government control.  

Corcan has annual revenues of some $70 million from the sales of its goods and services, making it able to cover all or many operating costs.  $19 million is received yearly from Ottawa in order to pay for requirements which cannot be passed on to clients, even though Corcan services primarily a government market.  While private sector industries are also regular Corcan customers, the agency is actively pursuing broadening and diversifying this client base.

Products include a wide array of outstanding and attractive office furniture, institutional items such as lockers and gun racks for the DND, textiles (mattresses, blankets and pillows, etc.) and services such as laundry and construction.  Office product isn’t inexpensive, but it carries a 10-year warranty.   

While visiting Leclerc and Archambault prisons in Quebec I observed a state of the art inmate operated computerized laundry service.  These institutions have private contracts with hospitals and nursing homes.  At the Collins Bay facility in Ontario, offenders are tearing down and completely rebuilding city buses.  The work is outstanding, the products first-rate.

As advisory board members visiting federal institutions (six in one day, recently) we don’t have much opportunity to speak with individual inmates.  However, if focus on the job at hand and body language are reliable indicators, the men we witnessed working on various Corcan initiatives were indeed committed to their training and the opportunities a trades certification brings with it.

One inmate invented a special metal press for use in the manufacture of steel frames for office chairs.  The press is now in daily use and its creator is justifiably proud.  “I made mistakes in life” he informs.  “When I get out I will make the necessary changes to never return here.” 

Among Corcan’s greatest supporters are Minister Toews, CSC Commissioner Don Head and Assistant Commissioner Chris Price.  John Sargent, Corcan CEO in turn has surrounded himself with regional directors who share his commitment.  Among them are Quebec director Youssef Mani and Ontario’s Detlef Fisher.

Listening to Mani and Fisher review the Corcan business plan, as well as the unique and inherent challenges a they face reminds that operation of a prison business creates dynamics not encountered in the private sector. 

Consider running a business staffed by employees who at a moment’s notice may find themselves literally unable to go to work because their prison is under lockdown.  Meanwhile, clients expect their product on time.

A fleet of Corcan trucks and trailers delivers goods displaying the clever “Quality from the Inside Out” marketing slogan. Only the accompanying Correctional Service Canada logo provides a hint about the nature of the enterprise. 

A recent decision by the Public Safety Minister to remove inmate incentive pay at Corcan may, according to staff, become cause for concern that job sites could become challenged environments.     

At present any offender in any Canadian federal prison may earn up to a maximum of $6.90 per day.  In the case of Corcan, incentives ranging from 0.25/hr to $2.00/hr based on a particular operation are added to the offender’s existing pay rate.

Prison pay breaks down in this manner.  A $1 basic allowance is available to inmates who, according to the Commissioner’s directive “refuse to participate in all assignments offered by the Program Board.”  Pay then increases incrementally from $2.50 to $6.90 depending on an inmate’s willingness to participate in program assignments specified in his or her correctional plan.  Attendance, punctuality, completion of all requirements and “excellent interpersonal relationships, attitude, motivation, behaviour, effort and productivity” are required in order to qualify for the $6.90 daily maximum.  

While Toews considers Corcan a vital rehabilitation option, he states “the purpose of Corcan is to provide valuable job training to people who, in many cases, have never positively contributed to society.  Corcan was never designed to supplement the income of inmates, but rather, to provide the skills they need to give back to society.  That is why we are eliminating the perk of so-called ‘incentive pay’.”

Jim Ecclestone is president of Calstone, a Canadian family-owned company in the business of creating and manufacturing metal furniture and recognized for its commitment to the environment and innovative recycling initiatives.  Ecclestone has developed a relationship with Corcan and has hired a number of former offenders and Corcan graduates.  Is Ecclestone satisfied with the effort and quality of their work?  He is. 

John Sargent recalls visiting several Kingston, Ontario production sites on his fifth day as CEO.  “Prior to starting this job I was like many people who thought those in prison deserved to be there and would never be productive members of society.  I expected to find several offenders beating mercilessly on a piece of material with little or no skill, or effort.  As a former trades worker I was most surprised to see over fifty workers engaged in what I would describe as a medium to heavy manufacturing operation.  As I spoke to them about their work, the sense of accomplishment was frankly astounding.  Many told me they had made a mistake and were now paying for it.  However, they wanted to do as much as possible to improve their employability through Corcan and to be able to get a job and become real fathers and husbands on release.”

Sargent then relates an incident which clearly impacted him.  In Calgary to to present College certificates in carpentry to a group of offenders who had completed both classroom sessions, as well as a practicum which saw inmates work alongside volunteers for six weeks framing a series of homes for Habitat for Humanity, Sargent noticed one offender by himself in a corner, crying.  “When I asked him why he would be crying when he had just earned this certification he replied, ‘This is the first time in my life anyone connected to school has told me I have done something right.’”

Inmates involved with Corcan were canvassed by CSC staff for quotes for this column.  Two agreed.  “Corcan helped reintigrate me into the community after 25 years and showed me what skills are expected in the work place and how to utilize them and find employment.”  And, “have more experience in a specialized trade now.  I can take my welding ticket and get a good job anywhere.”

No one, from Minister Toews to CSC Commissioner Head and Assistant Commissioner Price, attempt to soft-sell Corcan.  They, as well as Sargent and his staff repeatedly make the point Corcan operates in a prison environment, that the various program students/employees account for a small percentage of the total Canadian prison population and that all are convicted criminals, making security priority item one.

That written, the multi-decade record of Corcan success would suggest that for at least a percentage of Canada’s federal prison population it doesn’t have to be “doing life, two to four years at a time.”

Roy Green is host of The Roy Green Show, a national program heard weekends on Corus Radio.  Follow Roy on Twitter @theRoyGreenShow.

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