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

Co-Curated by Camilla Leonelli Calzado and Sephra Lamothe

Man working on a shoe in a workshop

Kingston Penitentiary Shoe Workshop, 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 co-curated by Sephra Lamothe and Camilla Leonelli Calzado 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. While the government’s intention behind developing labour programs for incarcerated individuals was to reform and educate, these programs have primarily benefited those already in positions of power, while simultaneously disempowering marginalised populations. The historical experiences of convicts in North America, who produced shoes and clothing, vividly illustrate the ongoing exploitation faced by their present-day counterparts.

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

Wooden Shoe Last used to manufacture shoes within the Kingston Penitentiary Shoe Workshop, 1960s. Kingston Penitentiary. Courtesy of Canada’s Penitentiary Museum. Private Collection. Photo by Ben Harley.

Prison-Made Leather and rubber sole men’s shoes 1960s. Kingston Penitentiary. Courtesy of Canada’s Penitentiary Museum. Private Collection. Photo by Ben Harley

Industrial Shoe – Department Sign. C7 Entrance to the Shoe Workshop. Kingston Penitentiary. 2022. Photo by Ben Harley.

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