Springhill Insitution inmates making office furniture

Wooden fishing lures, custom tool belts, even police uniforms — these are just some of the things made by prisoners in this country.

The company behind the initiative says the goal is to sell products and help inmates develop skills

Office furniture is manufactured inside the Springhill Institution by a company called CORCAN. (Blair Sanderson/CBC)

Wooden fishing lures, custom tool belts, even police uniforms — these are just some of the things made by prisoners in this country.

In Nova Scotia, inmates at the Springhill Institution are making office furniture.

In fact, the new RCMP facility in Dartmouth is filled with furniture manufactured by a company called CORCAN, a multi-million dollar business that sells products and services supplied by prisoners.

Company CEO Lynn Garrow says the goal is two-fold: to sell products to clients such as the Canada Revenue Agency and the Department of National Defence, and to help inmates develop job skills while working and serving time.

When they get out, she says they are less likely to reoffend if they can find meaningful employment.

"People always say to me, 'What are you? Are you a training program or are you a business?' And I don't see any conflict between the two because I think the best thing that we can do for inmates is to make it as businesslike as possible," said Garrow.

'It makes a big difference to a person's life'

Rick Brewer is serving a life sentence for bank robbery, although he's up for parole later this year.

"It makes a big difference to a person's life because guys are coming in here into the federal system so young, they're 20, 25 years old. They have no job skills... they have no social skills, they don't know how to interact with a boss, with someone who tells them what to do," said Brewer.

He says cuts to prisoner pay is hurting the CORCAN program.

He used to earn $49 a month, but 30 percent of that is now taken off for room and board fees, plus he's no longer able to earn bonuses for doing a good job.

Both the warden of the prison and CORCAN's CEO say the cuts have affected morale, especially for the longer serving inmates.

However, some of those who are new to the place have a different perspective.

Oren Ellick is a 29 year old from Plaster Rock, New Brunswick. He was locked up last September and actually chose to do his time in the federal prison to access programs such as drug rehab. 

He has experience working with heavy machinery from time he spent working in Alberta, so at the Springhill CORCAN shop, he's focusing on carpentry.

"It's just better to keep going and learn positive things. I mean I intend on putting every single name of all of these machines on my resume," said Ellick.

Pretty soon, Ellick could have even more to add to to his CV.

The demand for CORCAN's products continues to grow. Last year, total revenues were $68 million.

Garrow says she's hoping to move more into pre-fab home construction and establish more partnerships with private companies looking to outsource.

Unfair competition criticisms

One criticism of the CORCAN program is that it exploits low-wage work and unfairly competes with private businesses.

But Garrow says it has many cost pressures that ordinary business do not, such as higher training costs, increased security and temporary lockdowns.

She says they often lose contracts to private business that can adapt quicker to changing demands and requirements.

Listen as CBC reporter Blair Sanderson spends some time inside the Springhill Institution getting to know the prisoners who make the products.


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