Inmates in several federal prisons across Canada have gone on strike to protest against a 30 per cent cut in their pay that took effect this week.

The government began deducting the money from prisoners’ paycheques as part of a move to recover costs under the federal government’s Deficit Reduction Action Plan. The move was first announced in May 2012 by Public Safety Minister Vic Toews.

Until now, the top pay an inmate could earn was $6.90 a day, but only a small percentage of inmates received that. The average is $3 a day.

That rate was set up 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 at the time.

No increase in three decades

Despite inflation, inmates have not had a pay raise in 32 years, even though the Correctional Service of Canada'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.

“People are just saying enough is enough, they’re just barely getting by now,” said John Curcio, chair of the inmate committee at Bath Institution, a medium security prison west of Kingston, Ont. Inmates there refused to go to work Tuesday as a protest. “A lot of these guys send their money home.,” he said. “We can’t help our families or save for the future.”​

Curcio said the government is double dipping, by deducting 30 per cent of inmate's pay when it already factors in the cost of room and board. “We should get a raise instead of a cut.”

He said the Harper government has adopted a “tough on crime approach but what about rehabilitation?”

At Fenbrook Institution, a medium security prison near Gravenhurst, Ont., inmates also stayed away from work. Greg McMaster, inmate committee chair, said the prisoners are frustrated and angry about the  cumulative effects of the harsh measures brought in by the Harper government in recent years.

“They are feeling the crushing effects of longer sentences, double bunking and now this,” he said. “We’ve had no recreation budget for the past three years and the infrastructure is crumbling.

“We can’t even afford to bring our families in for a family visit. And now many of us won’t be able to afford phone contact with our families,” he said. “It’s just one thing after another.”

According to correctional service figures, the move will save about $4 million a year out of the total budget of more than $2.6 billion.

'Nickel and dime' changes

Canada’s correctional investigator, the ombudsman for prisons, called the move insensitive and short-sighted.

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Howard Sapers, the correctional investigator of Canada and federal ombudsman for prisons, is critical of the federal government's cut to inmate pay, saying the move jeopardizes an offender's ability to leave prison with a bank account. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

“My response to the correctional service was that this was really picking at low-hanging fruit,” said Howard Sapers, who has called in the past for an increase in inmate pay to reflect modern costs. He called these latest cuts  “nickel and dime” changes that would not generate much opposition.

“There has been no adjustment in the rate of compensation since 1981 and we all know how much more expensive things have become,” said Sapers.

“Writing a letter home, sending a birthday card to a child, sending a Christmas card, being able to buy personal hygiene articles, non-prescription drugs for inmates who suffer from skin conditions, eye drops for older offenders  … inmates don’t expect the taxpayer to pay for that, they purchase those themselves but they need to have a source of funds to purchase them.” 

Sapers said the move undermines the idea that inmates should develop a good work ethic and save for their release. “This really minimizes and jeopardizes the ability of an offender to come out of prison with any kind of a bank account whatsoever.”

Along with the pay cut, the correctional service is also eliminating incentive pay for those prisoners who work for CORCAN, a program in many prisons where inmates make furniture and other items that are sold on contracts to government departments and the public. Inmates who worked at CORCAN were able to earn extra money in order to meet production quotas. That too has been cancelled.

“I don’t see a valid correctional objective to this, “ said Todd Sloan, a lawyer who represents several inmate committees in Ontario prisons.  ‘People are basically furious,” he said. “There are people who have worked for years and years to earn their way (in prison) into a situation where they can earn some relatively speaking decent wages and learn a trade and now that is all being thrown out from under them.”

Inmates who spoke to CBC News say they don’t know how long their protests will continue. While they are on strike, inmates jobs such as food preparation, administrative support, cleaning and garbage collection is being done by correctional service staff.

A spokesperson for the correctional service told CBC in an email that inmates can participate in peaceful protests, but they will not be paid as long as they are not working or following their correctional programs.