Brock expert makes case for unionizing incarcerated workers

A new book from a Brock expert and a criminal defence lawyer explores the extension of legal labour protections to some of Canada’s most marginalized workers — prisoners working during their incarceration.

Assistant Professor Jordan House in the Department of Labour Studies, with co-author and lawyer Asaf Rashid, published Solidarity Beyond Bars: Unionizing Prison Labour last month with Fernwood Publishing.

“Prison labourers are exempt from basic health and safety, employment standards and labour laws, and I think we should ask why these legal exclusions exist,” says House. “We argue that there aren’t any good public safety, legal or moral justification to exclude prisoners from normal occupational health and safety regulations.”

House’s interest in prison justice issues dates back to his time as an undergraduate student, when he attended a workshop at Dorchester Penitentiary in New Brunswick through the Alternatives to Violence Project.

Then, while completing his PhD dissertation on prison labour and resistance in Canada, he gave an interview about his research on campus radio with future co-author Rashid.

When Rashid attended law school a few years later, he wrote a paper on federal prisoner unionization. After receiving positive feedback on the essay, Rashid and House decided to expand the argument into a book.

It’s a subject that shows many parallels to the overall labour movement, according to House, but he acknowledges that some readers may be skeptical of the need for unions among prison labourers.

“The unionization of prison labour in Canada means simply getting prisoners to be covered by all those same laws and regulations that a worker outside of prison is covered by,” he says. “We start the book with a discussion of some of the misconceptions around who is in prison and the function of prison in Canadian society, and then we talk about the reasons for these kinds of legal exclusions and whether they’re justifiable.”

One common misconception is that prison labour is intended to be punitive.

“If you look at correctional law and policy, prison labour in this country is supposed to be part of rehabilitation,” says House. “But how does having someone work for below minimum wage or without the right to refuse unsafe work help rehabilitate them?”

In the book, the authors go on to explain why a union is “not only a good idea, but a possible one” with a detailed historical example of a prison union that operated in Ontario for about ten years.

“In 1977, prisoners working at a commercial abbatoir that was part of the Guelph Correctional Centre successfully unionized alongside their non-incarcerated coworkers,” House says. “In the first collective agreement the union signed, they equalized wages between incarcerated and non-incarcerated workers, ensured that prisoners had the right to serve as officers in the union and even enabled temporary releases for prisoners to attend union meetings outside of the prison.”

House encourages readers to take a closer look at the issues related to prisoners and work, because they may be surprised by what they find.

“Prison labour isn’t something that many people give much thought, so they may be surprised by the fact that prisoners in Canada make pennies an hour, if anything,” says House. “Canada’s prisons have a stated goal of rehabilitation, but like almost all other rehabilitation programming, employment programming is shockingly lacking, and that raises questions.”

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