Ex-inmates want political help after prisoner pay cuts upheld in court

Former prisoners who lost a court case that tried to overturn inmate wage cuts brought in by the previous federal government say they are turning to a political solution.

Federal prisoners lost court bid to overturn pay cuts brought in by Conservatives in 2013

In a ruling that was made public Monday, federal prisoners lost their court case to overturn pay cuts brought in by the former Conservative government. (Correctional Service Canada/Flickr)

Former prisoners who lost a court case that tried to overturn inmate wage cuts brought in by the previous federal government say they are turning to a political solution. 

In 2013, then-prime minister Stephen Harper slashed the wages of prisoners working in federal penitentiaries — who were making up to $6.90 a day — by 30 per cent.

This was done partly to pay for the cost of their food and accommodations.

The nine applicants all used to be inmates and argued the lower wages are unconstitutional, breach Canada's Labour Code and violate international conventions on prisoner treatment.

The case was struck down on Monday.

Jarrod Shook is a former inmate and one of the court case applicants. 

We just want some action. That's all we're asking for.- Former inmate Jarrod Shook

He told CBC Radio's All In A Day reforms to the previous government's policy would line up well with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's claims to "sunny ways."

"Justin Trudeau mandated his Minister of Justice and Attorney General of Canada Jody Wilson-Raybould to review all the laws, policies and practices that were introduced during that era of government with Stephen Harper," he said. 

Shook, who is now a criminology student at the University of Ottawa, added the office of the correctional investigator has been critical of the inmate pay issue.

That federal investigator has asked the minister of public safety to review the policy. 

"We just want some action. That's all we're asking for," Shook said.

In an email, a spokesperson for Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale said a Correctional Service of Canada review of the pay system is ongoing.

He said the minister's office is also reviewing this week's court decision.

Hard to save

A lot of people have misconceptions that inmates don't pay their way while behind bars, Shook said.

He added prisoners are responsible for things like aspirin, hygiene items, deodorant and extra clothing.

"If you work it out on an hour to hour basis, assuming that prisoners work about six hours a day, it's pennies per hour that prisoners are being paid for the work that they do," he said.

"They need this money to save for their eventual release [and] to pay for necessities in the institution," he said. 

Losing the legal battle

In court, Shook and his fellow former inmates highlighted a 2005-06 report by Canada's correctional ombudsman that noted daily payments for work and participation in programs had not risen in close to two decades.

A basket of canteen items that cost $8.49 in 1981 cost $61.59 in 2006.

But in a ruling released earlier this week, the Federal Court said that "although not luxurious, the offenders' needs are met adequately" when it comes to food, clothing and hygiene items in correctional facilities.

"If there are gaps, they were not demonstrated in any way in the case presented to this court," Justice Yvan Roy wrote in the ruling.

The court also rejected all of the prisoners' legal arguments.

In the ruling, Roy said the court did not weigh the wisdom of the Conservative government's decision to make pay deductions, merely the legal basis for doing so.

The argument of cruel and unusual treatment fails because wages that are less generous than expected cannot be equated with practices that would "outrage standards of decency," such as lashing, castration or lobotomy, Roy said.

Jarrod Shook has spent around seven years in prison, mostly for robbery offences. (Emily Parr)