Teaching inmates to build office chairs and sew isn't preparing those incarcerated in federal institutions for the modern job market, says Canada's prison watchdog. 

Ivan Zinger reviews prison policies and procedures as Canada's correctional investigator. He said the job training programs inside Canadian prisons need to be updated. 

Former offenders who find work after leaving prison are less likely to reoffend, said Zinger. The more employable skills they have when they get out, the better chance they have of finding work.

"They have to retool the entire CORCAN industry to reflect the 21st century and not factories of the 50s and 60s," said Zinger.      

CORCAN is an agency within the Correctional Service of Canada designed to help rehabilitate inmates and give them practical skills to find work once they're released. It operates more than 110 shops in 29 correctional institutions across Canada. It also has three community-based operations. 

Out-of-date training

CORCAN offers training in a variety of sectors, including manufacturing, textiles and construction. Inmates make products such as office furniture which is then sold, usually to other federal government departments. 

Those industries aren't thriving in Canada and the skills inmates learn while practising them are very basic and difficult to transfer into the labour market, said Zinger.  

Ivan Zinger

Ivan Zinger says CORCAN should try to offer inmates more opportunities to work towards a Red Seal trade while in incarcerated. (Government of Canada)

"The type of work being provided by CORCAN does not match well ... the labour market demands. CORCAN does a poor job at ensuring that those who are benefiting from CORCAN can actually find meaningful work once released," he said.     

CORCAN disagrees.

In an emailed statement, the agency said it provides third-party certified vocational training. The agency said it reviews labour market trends on an ongoing basis to make sure its training meets the demands of the Canadian market. 

Inmates receive on-the-job training in trades such as carpentry, mechanics, electronics, welding and auto repair. Offenders can also complete apprenticeship hours toward their professional qualifications in various trades in the construction field. 

Not enough 'meaningful' work

In the fiscal year 2015-16, 107 inmates were registered as apprentices under CORCAN as industrial mechanics, carpenters, electricians, plumbers and other tradespeople.

On any given day, 1,790 offenders are working in CORCAN operations across the country and provide 2.4 million hours of on-the-job skills training a year  

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CORCAN says on any given day, 1,790 offenders are taking part in its training programs.

That's just a drop in the bucket, according to Zinger. There are about 14,200 inmates in federal prisons and only about eight per cent of the prison population is working with CORCAN. He said those numbers are far below what they should be.  

"It's not because inmates are not interested in working, it's more an issue there's a shortage of meaningful work and training opportunities with Correctional Service of Canada," said Zinger. 

More Red Seal training

He said CORCAN needs to have more opportunities for inmates to work as apprentices and earn hours toward a Red Seal trade — the Canadian standard of excellence that signifies a tradesperson has a high level of training. 

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CORCAN says it reviews labour market trends to make sure its training meets the needs of the Canadian market.

The seal on a person's trade certificate makes it easier for a tradesperson to have their skills recognized across Canada. 

Zinger said CORCAN should foster more partnerships with leading Canadian industries and expand the work release program, which allows inmates to work in the community during the day and return to the penitentiary at night.  

'The skill set ... is not translating into jobs'

The John Howard Society of Canada agrees with Zinger's criticisms. It works to reintegrate former prisoners into society. 

"What I'm hearing is that some of the former prisoners feel that the skill set they learned at CORCAN is not translating into jobs," said Catherine Latimer, the society's executive director.

Catherine Latimer

Catherine Latimer, executive director of the John Howard Society, said she would like to see CORCAN run less like a business and more like rehabilitative program. (CBC)

She said employment helps former inmates take care of themselves and builds their self-esteem showing them they can contribute to society. Both of which help prevent people from returning to crime. 

It's time CORCAN changed its focus, said Latimer.  

"I would like it if they understood it more as prison programming rather than trying to run an industry that's profitable." 

Change could be on the way, said Zinger. His office has pushed CORCAN to develop an action plan to better match its training to the jobs in the marketplace.

He said CORCAN has agreed to put that plan together between this year and next. It has also started a pilot project to hire employment counsellors to help inmates find work. 

"At least they are making the commitment, which is important. It's obviously a first step," he said.