Federal prisoners in court hoping to force government to address inmate pay rules
The Correctional Service of Canada's medium-security Matsqui prison in Abbotsford, B.C., is shown on Sept. 14, 2006. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Richard Lam)
Sidhartha Banerjee, The Canadian Press
Published Monday, February 6, 2017 4:44PM EST
Last Updated Monday, February 6, 2017 5:47PM EST
MONTREAL -- Federal prisoners who want to increase the amount they receive in inmate pay are hopeful a court will find in their favour and force the government to act on the issue.
Lawyers representing inmates began arguing in Federal Court on Monday that their charter rights are being infringed by government policies.
Attorneys representing the prisoners said the salary paid to convicts who work has been frozen since it was introduced in 1981.
And lawyers said that for some inmates, that amount has been subject to a 30 per cent cut taken off the top since 2013, when the Conservative government offset accommodation, food and telephone costs.
"What the inmates are contesting is that in 2012, the government introduced policy that affected their pay, taking off 30 per cent automatically," said lawyer Rita Magloe Francis.
She said the previous government also removed certain bonuses that allowed convicts to save money that could be used while reintegrating into society.
Currently, those who partake in work and reintegration programs are paid a maximum of $6.90 a day, before the additional pay cut.
Francis, one of the lawyers representing the inmates, said the cost of a basket of everyday items routinely purchased by prisoners has risen from $8.49 in 1981 to $61.59 today -- a spike of nearly 725 per cent.
Lawyers for the federal government say there's no reason to increase the pay, given that an inmate costs roughly $115,000 to house a year and essentials are covered by Correctional Services Canada.
Marie-Claude Lacroix, another lawyer for the inmates, said certain items aren't covered by authorities. Things like medications such as acetaminophen, extra shoes or additional clothing must be purchased out of pocket.
Lacroix noted that not all inmates have family who are able to provide extra funds for such items they call necessities.
She argued that lower pay has left inmates feeling exploited and led to a host of psychological and esteem issues.
In 2005, the government ignored a recommendation by the Office of the Correctional Investigator to raise the salaries.
A Federal Court justice is hearing arguments on the matter over three days this week, with several thousand pages of affidavits and documents filed in court by both sides.
The court action is on behalf of all federal inmates -- about 15,000 at any given time.
While Federal Court doesn't have the power to set what would be a reasonable salary, the inmates' lawyers hope they will rule the current pay rules are contrary to social reintegration and the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
"I'm not here to decide on the policy that should be followed by Correctional Services Canada," Justice Yvan Roy said at one point Monday. "I think what was introduced in 1981 had a particular flavour, something that has changed a lot over the past 35 years."
Francis said she believes the current policy is unconstitutional.
"What we think, in 1981 the federal government made the right calculations, but it must be indexed to reflect the costs of today," she said outside the courtroom.