Inmates in Canada will pay more money for their room and board, and some offenders employed within institutions through a popular job skills program will no longer be paid, Public Safety Minister Vic Toews said today.

Toews also announced changes to the way inmates can buy goods, and that they will be charged more for using telephones.

The public safety minister said the changes are designed to increase offender accountability and will also save taxpayers more than $10 million per year.

The new measures also include:

  • Eliminating "incentive pay" for inmates working at CORCAN facilities. The CORCAN job-training program is in 31 institutions, and gives employment to offenders in textiles, manufacturing, construction, printing services and laundry operations. Toews said there is a high demand to participate in the program, and therefore there is no need to offer an incentive.
  • Transferring responsibility for operating canteens from prison staff to offender committees. Currently, about 85 per cent of canteens are already run by inmates, and now the other 15 per cent will also be transferred. Inmates buy goods such as books, food and clothing at the canteens.
  • When inmates want to buy goods from outside stores, they fill out a request form and a staff member makes one trip at a time as the requests are processed. Now, staff will only go to a set list of stores and will do so at designated times to make multiple purchases for the inmates. Inmates will also be given the option of ordering through catalogues.

Some of the changes will help reduce the administrative burdens on staff, Toews said. "Institutional staff are not personal shoppers," he said.

Restoring balance to justice system

The increased cost for room and board will begin in 2013 and 2014, and only applies to inmates who are on the higher end of the stipend scale.

There are six levels of stipends for inmates, with pay ranging from $1 per day at Level 1, to a maximum of $69 every two weeks in Level 6.

Toews said it is a longstanding policy to provide remuneration to inmates who participate in initiatives, including employment programs, as part of their correctional plan, and that it helps them assume responsibility for their expenses and support their families.

Inmates at Level 3 and above will see 30 per cent of their pay go to room and board when the new rules take effect, which Toews said reflects the fact that most Canadians spend 30 per cent of their income on housing costs.

The new charge for these inmates will range from $1.58 to $2.08 per day.

Toews said the new measures seek to restore balance to the criminal justice system and that they will make criminals more accountable. He said he approached the Correctional Service of Canada for advice on how to deal with offender accountability issues and then he made the decisions announced today after discussions with the department.

He said he would like to see the CORCAN program expanded and is focused on doing that so that more offenders can benefit from it. CORCAN operates like private sector businesses do, within federal institutions, and are designed to give participants "real-world" work experience.

Pay for inmates who are part of the CORCAN program varies depending on the location and the work being performed. It can range from 50 cents per hour to $2.30 per hour.

Cutting the pay that is offered through this program will save $1.7 million according to Toews's office.

"Once we have these individuals in prison I want to emphasize education, training, and mental health and that is exactly what we are doing," Toews said.

The public safety minister also wrote a message on Twitter on Wednesday that he had recently discovered that some inmates had access to pornography on their televisions and that he has put an end to the "unacceptable" practice.

A former inmate and participant in CORCAN, Rick Osborne, told CBC News that various reforms being made to the corrections system by the Conservative government are losing sight of the fact that prisoners are human beings.

Taking away disposable income could risk giving a boost to the black market within prisons, he said.

Most of the money earned by CORCAN employees goes towards inmates' families, he added, and taking away the incentive pay may decrease participation.

"When you have a guy where he's working all week and doesn't have any disposable income at the end, that's called slavery. How far are you going with what you're going to make guys do inside?" he said.

The government recently announced that it plans to close Kingston Penitentiary in eastern Ontario, including the Regional Treatment Centre, a psychiatric facility, and Leclerc Institution in Quebec. The inmates will be relocated to other federal prisons across the country. The decision has been blasted by critics.

Budget cuts are also resulting in the end of a popular program called Lifeline that assisted offenders with re-integration after their release.