Canada’s Public Safety Minister Vic Toews is being painted as a grinch after he put an end to inmates occasionally spending their own money to order food from outside prisons.
With a warden’s approval, inmate groups over the years have received permission to use their own money to order outside food such as pizza and fried chicken. These food drive nights also doubled as fundraisers for local charities and relief efforts such as Doctors Without Borders and victims of hurricanes and earthquakes.
But in September, Toews issued a directive to end such food drives.
"Canadians were concerned that dangerous and violent prisoners had across the board access to pizza parties and BBQ socials," wrote a spokesperson for Toews in a statement to CBC News.
Inmates in prisons across Canada raised tens of thousands of dollars each year from those food drives, according to John Chaif, a member of the inmate committee at Joyceville Institution, near Kingston, Ont.
"This was our money that we earned that we spent," he said. "None of it was institutional funding."
Chaif said in recent years Joyceville inmates have donated thousands of dollars to children’s toy drives at Christmas, to local food banks, to shelters for youth and to earthquake victims in Haiti.
Chaif said the food drives also benefited many local restaurants and pizza shops since the food orders often ranged from $400 to $1,800 depending on the event. Inmates would be charged a premium for the food inside the prison and part of the proceeds would go to a charity.
"We raised a lot of money from those food nights for different charities and that is really going to hurt," said Lois Gorgerat, a volunteer with the United Way in Eastern Ontario. For the past 15 years she has been a fundraiser liaison for inmates at Warkworth Institution in Ontario and helped them donate tens of thousands of dollars to local school projects, humane societies and local firefighters.
"They raise from $5,000 to $20,000 a year, we’re talking big dollars here and if you take that away, it’s gonna hurt the community," she said.
"We know they are all bad guys, that’s why they’re in there, but darn it, if they’re trying to do something good to give back to the community, why are you putting up these walls?"
Greg McMaster has been in prison for more than 34 years serving a life sentence for murder. During that time he’s helped raise thousands of dollars for various charities, including the annual Special People’s Olympiad at Collins Bay Institution in Kingston. It pairs athletes who are physically and mentally challenged with inmates for a weekend of Olympic-style games.
"When I was chairing it, we raised as much as $50,000 and $25,000 of that was raised in-house from inmates," McMaster said.
He said inmates who have jobs make, at most, about $54 dollars every two weeks. So for them to pay $5 or $10 for a slice of pizza is a big investment.
"We’re paying for that ourselves and by the same process, we’re supporting local businesses in the community and on top of that we’re making donations to local charities. So at the end of the day who’s really getting hurt?" he said.
"If someone’s in an outrage that I enjoy a piece of KFC twice a year, I would say their priorities may be a little askew."
The food drives were also an opportunity for inmates to make positive social contact with people on the outside, according to Catherine Latimer, executive director of the John Howard Society of Canada.
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"This is not something to be discouraged, in fact it is something that we should try to encourage," Latimer said. "The more inmates are participating in pro-social contact, the more likely it is that they will continue to do so on the outside."
In a statement to CBC News, the Correctional Service of Canada said the overall policy of ordering food from outside for inmates is under review.
"Food drives were recognized to be a privilege and were managed as such," wrote CSC spokesperson Sara Parkes.
But with Toews directive and until the review is complete, take-out food orders from prisons are prohibited.