'The prices are outrageous': Concerns raised over monopoly on ordered goods in federal prisons

Prisoners at federal penitentiaries are being forced to buy goods and personal effects at prices inflated above what the public pays, an inmate and advocates say.

Inmates paying more than retail for goods in single-source catalogue

Inmates at Canada's federal penitentiaries can order goods and personal effects through a single catalogue. (Andrew Vaughan/Canadian Press)

Prisoners at federal penitentiaries are being forced to buy goods and personal effects at prices inflated above what the public pays, an inmate and advocates say.

Federal inmates are allowed to order goods and personal effects through a single catalogue. It's provided by Prototype Integrated Solutions, a Langley, B.C.-based company that has a monopoly on the prison market. It also provides goods to several other federal departments, including the Department of National Defence and the CBSA.

Hundreds of items are available in the catalogue, everything from clothing, electronics, health and personal hygiene items to sporting equipment, religious goods and hobby supplies. However, the inmate, who resides in a Quebec prison, says the catalogue falls short both in terms of price and quality.

"The prices are outrageous ... There's a guy, he bought a stapler, first time he goes to staple with it, it just falls apart into pieces in his hands," he told CBC News in an interview from prison.

His identity is being withheld because he is a whistleblower​.

Before the catalogue, which was brought in under the previous Conservative government, the inmate said prisoners were able to buy items by placing an order with an institutional staff member. They would then go to the nearest town or make an order through the mail.

According to Corrections Canada, the catalogue was intended to standardize what was available to inmates, as well as reduce the amount of time staff would spend processing orders and shopping for items.

'Covers all costs'

In an interview, Ghislain Sauvé, director general of technical services and facilities at the federal agency, said the catalogue brings consistency between penitentiaries across the county, so that inmates in B.C., for instance, can buy and pay the same amount for goods as inmates in Newfoundland.

"It covers all costs, so when you pay for an item it covers everything, delivery, any handling," said Sauvé

A representative of Prototype Integrated Solutions declined an interview request.

In an email, the company referred questions to Corrections Canada, adding that the contract is the "result of a fair public procurement process."

Prototype Integrated Solutions takes all the profits on sales, according to Corrections Canada.

Dozens of items more expensive

CBC News obtained a copy of the catalogue that is in effect until the end of March, 2019.

In at least two dozen cases CBC found items in the catalogue that were more expensive for inmates compared to the price the public would pay.

The items include:

  • A Levi's "trucker" jean jacket was priced at $153.38 plus tax for inmates. A similar styled "trucker" jacket could be purchased online at Levi's Canadian store for $108.
  • A pair of men's Run Supreme Reebok shoes is being sold for $136.74 plus tax in the catalogue. A similar pair of "Run Supreme" shoes are available for $90 on Reebok Canada's website.
  • An Under Armour shower shoe would cost an inmate $67.19 plus tax. On Under Armour's Canadian website the same shower shoe is being sold for $39.99.
  • A 19-inch LED television is being sold for $237.03 plus tax. A similar television could be bought at Walmart Canada for $103.50.

In comparing the items, CBC attempted to find the exact item described or the most similar item that was available to the public. Many of the items in the catalogue are no longer sold in retail stores.

According to the inmate, one of the worst items to order through the catalogue is music on compact disc. Prototype Integrated Solutions charges a rate of $27.56 plus tax for any music CD.

The inmate says most often a relative can purchase the same CD for half the price, and not have to wait up to six months for delivery.

In at least two dozen cases, CBC News found items in the catalogue, provided by Prototype Integrated Solutions, that were more expensive for inmates compared to the price the public would pay. (CBC)

Sauvé said pricing is Prototype Integrated Solutions responsibility. He added that he has heard concerns about the cost of goods from not only inmate committees, but also Corrections Canada staff.

Public Services and Procurement Canada reviewed the catalogue before it was awarded, he said.

"They did a cost analysis to confirm that the items were competitive, or were appropriate for the Canadian retail market," said Sauvé.

High prices, low pay

Many of the inmates struggle to save up to buy items in the catalogue, the inmate said.

Inmates earn between $5.25 to $6.90 a day working in the institution. However, those wages are subject to a 30 per cent deduction to pay for room and board and the inmate phone system.

Why do we have to pay … more just because we're inmates?- Anonymous prisoner in Quebec

Jarrod Shook, a former prisoner who now works as an editor for the Ottawa-based Journal of Prisoners on Prisons, said that inmates are well aware of the monopoly in place and their limited wages put many items out of reach.

"The wages have never increased since the 1980s, and furthermore with inflation, access to products now are a lot more, and prohibitively, expensive," said Shook.

Corrections Canada allows for inmates to receive up to $750 a year from family or others outside of the institution.

Maintaining sense of identity

The items in the catalogue also provide inmates an opportunity to wear clothing outside of what they are issued by Corrections Canada upon arrival at an institution.

When not working or during free time, inmates can change into casual clothing.

"You feel a little less human," the inmate said, about wearing Corrections Canada clothing.

"It's a matter of personal pride, where even if it's not the best looking T-shirt or the nicest pair of shoes, at least you're wearing something that belongs to you."

Shook said the Journal of Prisoners on Prison has also heard how important it is for inmates to be able to have their own clothes and personal items.

In a 2017 issue, the journal asked inmates to write about reforms of the prison system under the former Conservative government. Many identified the purchasing process as an issue and spoke about losing their sense of self esteem.

"When you're able to access basic things, like maybe a pair of earrings that you used to wear or a particular style of clothing, it does help you maintain a sense of your identity," said Shook.

Why more?

Both the inmate and Shook say that Corrections Canada should return to the former system and allow prisoners to order through a staff member who can get the best price.

"Why should we have to pay … more? Every little piece, article of clothing, why do we have to pay … more just because we're inmates?" the inmate said.

Another change both would like to see is prisoner's wages adjusted to give inmates more purchasing power.

Corrections Canada said the contract with Prototype Integrated Solutions has been extended another year, meaning it will be in place until March 2020.

Sauvé said they are exploring options for what to do after the contract runs out, that includes looking for an alternative to the current catalogue.

About the Author

Brennan Neill

Journalist

Brennan Neill is a journalist at CBC Montreal.

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