Exploring labour within Canadian Penitentiaries
Trades Workshops – Education or Exploitation?

Man working on a shoe in a workshop

An inmate makes shoes inside the Kingston Penitentiary. Captured by a staff photographer, he fits a shoe on a last using the cobbler’s bench. 1960s. Photo Courtesy of Canadian Penitentiary Museum.

Captive Labour

Prison labour still exists. It continues to be a pillar of the Canadian Penitentiary system. Although prisoners work long hours, their compensation remains far lower than Canada’s minimum wage. The Canadian minimum wage is $15.55/hour, but most prisoners in the Canadian system make between $5.25-$6.90/day (CSC, CD730). This compensation pales in comparison to the value of their work. In 2020, inmates produced approximately $43 million in revenue from goods and services. They were expected to generate $70 million, but the 2020 COVID-19 Pandemic affected production and sales (CSC, 2020-21 Departmental Results Report).

This exhibition highlights the historical and contemporary impacts of captive labour within North America. It focuses on the Kingston Penitentiary, a federal facility in Ontario that operated between 1835-2012. Although labour programs for incarcerated individuals were developed with the intention to reform and educate, they have benefited those already in a position of power, while disempowering marginalized populations. The historical experiences of convicts in North America producing shoes and clothing provide a stark context for the continuing exploitation of their contemporary counterparts.

Wooden Shoe Last 1960’s. Kingston Penitentiary.
Photo courtesy of Ben Harley.

Leather men’s shoes 1960’s. Kingston Penitentiary. Courtesy of Canada’s Penitentiary Museum. Photo courtesy of Ben Harley.

Industrial Shoe – Dept Sign. Kingston Penitentiary. 2022.
Photo Courtesy of Ben Harley.