Federal inmates who have been on strike in prisons across Canada since the beginning of this month have called a temporary halt to their actions.

The prisoners walked off their institutional jobs after the government reduced their pay by about 30 per cent as part of a cost-cutting measure.

In a letter sent to the federal commissioner of corrections, Don Head, the inmates are asking that officials begin discussions with them and their families over the pay cut and other changes underway in the correctional system.

“As people who live in the reality of incarceration and who are trying to return to the community as law-abiding citizens, my clients and other inmates have much to contribute to such a discussion,” wrote Todd Sloan, lawyer for several inmate committees across Canada, in the letter to Head.

Show of good faith

“At the end of the day they believe that work refusals, albeit required in recent circumstances, can be harmful to all concerned if prolonged without resolution.” 

Sloan said they have asked for a response from Don Head by Nov. 20. Sloan called this “a show of good faith” by the inmates who are looking for “a reasonable option” to open a discussion.

Until this month, the top level pay an inmate could earn was $6.90 a day, but only a small percentage get that. The average is $3 a day. That rate was set by the government in 1981. It was based on a review by a parliamentary committee and it factored in a deduction from inmates for the cost of room, board and clothing. 

Despite inflation, the rate has never increased in 32 years, even though the correctional service's own figures show costs have risen more than 700 per cent. As well, inmates are now expected to use their pay to purchase items that the prison no longer provides, such as soap, shampoo, deodorant, stationery and stamps.

The measures were first announced a year ago by then public safety minister Vic Toews as part of what was called the “incentives” program to make inmates more “accountable.” It was not scheduled to take effect until 2014.

Draconian measure 

Sloan told CBC News the government has not explained to inmates or anyone else how cutting their pay is an incentive. He said the action is punitive, not rehabilitative. 

“This is just the latest in a series of measures that has adversely affected the release possibilities of offenders. It’s one of the most draconian and ill-founded moves and it’s something that offenders hope will be subject to some kind of reasoned response from Mr. Head, the correctional service and the government,” he said.

Sloan adds that these moves do nothing to improve community safety. “In fact, it has the opposite effect,” he said.

“They’re double-bunking, there’s overcrowding, now the pay cuts. I personally don’t know what they’re doing other than saving money, but I don’t see how they are saving money,” said Greg McMaster, chair of the inmate committee at Fenbrook Institution, a medium-security prison in Ontario. “It’s hitting us from everywhere.”

The correctional service declined to answer questions on the inmates’ letter. A spokesperson for the correctional service said in an email late Tuesday that “CSC has received the letter and is in the process of responding.” 

Working within the law

Meanwhile, inmates at many of the institutions returned to work this week and are attending programs while they await the response. Some have also written appeals to prison wardens, asking to be exempt under a special provision from the pay cuts for reasons such as health and hardship.

“They’re working within the law, they are trying to be reasonable,” said Donna Turko, who represents inmates at three federal prisons in British Columbia. 

Sloan said that if the government refuses to answer or declines the request to meet, the inmates will consider other options, such as resuming their strike and going to court.