Education or Exploitation?

3D scan of Corcan cowhide moccasins
Moccasins made by Indigenous Inmates. Correctional Service of Canada (CSC), CORCAN, Warkworth Institution. 2022

By the early 1960s, labour laws and regulations began to change in Canadian prisons. The Canadian public questioned the effectiveness of reform, and a shift away from forced labour to voluntary work began. Although wages were still shockingly low, inmates’ interest in hobby crafts grew (The K.P. Telescope vol..5, August 1955, 23). At the Kingston Penitentiary, leatherwork became an area of major interest for inmates, and their creative projects could be sold through the prison for additional income or sent to family and friends  (The K.P. Telescope vol..5, August 1955, 23)

The K.P. Telescope vol.5, August 1955, 23. Courtesy of Queen’s University Rare Books and Special Collections.

CORCAN Upholstery Sign at the Kingston Penitentiary. Photo courtesy of Ben Harley.

CORCAN, which is an acronym for Correctional Canada, is a special operating agency within the Correctional Service of Canada (CSC) (CORCAN, 2022). CORCAN offers the employment and employability program to federal offenders throughout their sentence, in collaboration with CSC (CORCAN, 2022). CORCAN’s website states that it is a “key rehabilitation program” of CSC that “offers employment training and employability skills to offenders in federal correctional institutions, to support rehabilitation and help lower rates of re-offending”(CORCAN). CORCAN implements “on-the-job training to help offenders develop and practise essential employment skills” (CORCAN). They offer third party-certified on-the-job training, apprenticeship hours, vocational certifications, and skills training within the textiles, agricultural and construction industries.

Their website states that this allows inmates “earn and practice employability skills such as reliability, time management and working with others in a realistic work environment” (CORCAN).

CORCAN’s website states that Indigenous items, like these moccasins “are produced at Warkworth Institution and the Okimaw Ohci Healing Lodge, and provide Indigenous offenders with the opportunity to gain skills and participate in meaningful activities that contribute to their reintegration” (CORCAN Specialty Products, 2022).

FRC Moccasins
Cira 1950

Beaded moccasins partially lined in patterned cotton. Beadwork is stylized in a floral pattern in red and orange. Courtesy of Toronto Metropolitan University’s Fashion Research Collection.

Traditional moccasins are made by an individual for a specific wearer. The difference in craftsmanship and individuality between the beaded moccasins and the moccasins produced within Warkworth Institution is visually apparent. The beaded moccasins would take about a week to complete and would generally sell for $600.00-$700.00 today. The “imperfections” within the design and the originality of the artisan are expressed through the stitches and beadwork such as the floral pattern created within the line work.

Women’s Moccasins made by Indigenous Inmates. Correctional Service of Canada (CSC), CORCAN, Warkworth Institution 2022. Photos courtesy of Sephra Lamothe.

Children’s Beaver Fur Trim Moccasins made by Indigenous Inmates.  Correctional Service of Canada (CSC), CORCAN, Warkworth Institution 2022. Photos courtesy of Sephra Lamothe.

Footwear is still made in Canadian Prisons: Indigenous inmates produced the beige and fur trimmed moccasins at Warkworth Institution, only two hours East of Toronto, for a low retail cost of $55.00 each. According to CSC labour wages, the artisans are paid only $5.25-$6.90/day for their work (CSC, CD730)

The moccasins made within Warkworth Institution are made using an assembly line system, where tasks are divided and each individual completes the same task(s) on several pairs. This method increases time efficiency and reduces cost but removes the purpose of individual craftsmanship which traditional methods uphold. Within Justine Woods article, “I Love You as Much as all the Beads in the Universe,” the decolonial praxis of love engages in intentional creative practice which “bears witness to the past but looks towards a transformative future” (Yomaira qtd. in Woods 7). Within Indigenous creative practice, each garment prioritises aspects of care through embedded intention and attention to craft and detail (Woods 15). Woods highlights how each garment is carefully designed and technically considered to support, enhance, cherish, celebrate, hug, and love the wearer’s body. (Woods 15)

“Their function prioritises everyday relationships to the land and water, relationships to family, relationships to kin, relationships to non-human relatives and supports ethical practices of respect, empathy, reciprocity, consent, and love found within all of these relations” (Woods 15).

CORCAN offers several styles of moccasins made of moosehide or cowhide and infant styles include options trimmed with beaver or rabbit fur (CORCAN Specialty Products). Moccasin materials are traditionally tanned wild moose or deer hide. The moccasins purchased from CORCAN (pictured above) are made of commercially tanned cow leather. Traditional tanning is commonly an involved process consisting of multiple steps, some of which can take several days to complete (Hide Tanning the Traditional 13 Steps). Commercial tanning methods for cow leather are more cost effective but the tanning chemicals and process carry environmental impacts (Hansen 1; Mwinyihija 2). The use of non-traditional materials and processes of commercial tanning and assembly line system suggest that the focus of CORCANS production of Indigenous materials remains production and cost efficiency, not skill building or cultural connection.

The CORCAN moccasins label has an illustration of an American Bald Eagle and feather with the text: “Handcrafted by Canada’s First Nation, Metis & Inuit people”. There is no clear connection between the moccasins, Warkworth Institution, and/or CORCAN.

Two Indigenous boys making and/or repairing shoes, Carlisle Indian School, Pennsylvania, 1904. Trades education operated in Residential Schools across North America.
By Waldon Fawcett.
Courtesy of Library of Congress.

After 1800, the prison structure was heavily influenced by industrial factories. Mirroring the industrial working day, prison systems emphasised discipline and adherence to a structured routine. From 1820-1850, prison labour was critical in the Canadian transition from capitalist labour markets to industrial capitalism (McCoy 6). Captive labour was used to offset the expenses of running prisons and ideally,  to generate a financial surplus (McCoy 19). Prison work programs focus on trade education, repetitive labour, and maintenance can be traced back to the profound impact of the industrial revolution, urbanisation, and religious ideology. 

Central to captive labour was the belief that engaging in hard and honest work could reform individuals, shaping them into law-abiding citizens. The development of perceptions surrounding criminality serves as a parallel to the ideological narrative of prison labour. The discourse on class and race played a significant role in shaping notions about the likelihood of engaging in criminal behaviour. The language and understanding of criminals greatly influenced the trajectory of penitentiary reform and its structures. Criminality, particularly in relation to prison labour, drew from various sources, with emphasis on the connection within idleness, poverty, and criminality. (McCoy 10).

Ideologies centred around labour that envisioned it as a kind of penance for the prisoner’s’ crimes reinforced existing structures of domination. Ultimately, these institutions became integral pillars of class control, perpetuating racism and gender inequality within prison populations (McCoy 10). 

Labour as reform was common in other institutions including residential schools. Egerton Ryerson’s half-day system instilled vocational trades training that operated within residential schools from the 1840s to the 1950s. The system divided students’ days between curriculum studies and learning trades, such as farming, blacksmithing, shoemaking and other skills considered valuable to the settler colonial economy. The goal was to provide a practical English education adapted to the working farmer and mechanic, while also ensuring that the schools could become self-sufficient within a few years through strict management (Gladue Rights Research Database).

The half-day system closely mirrors the work that occurred and continues to occur within the Canadian Penitentiary System. The image above exemplifies the interconnectedness between Indigenous incarceration and the racially motivated efforts to reform, educate, and integrate Indigenous individuals into a Eurocentric society. Depicted in the image, the boys don Eurocentric uniforms, sport Eurocentric haircuts, and engage in cobbling European work boots with nails in their soles. This visual highlights the deliberate erasure of Indigenous cultural identity, justified by the racist ideology that Indigenous children should  be assimilated into a Eurocentric framework in order to become “productive” members of society.

Today, prison populations across the country still show the effects of colonisation and the half-day system policies. Indigenous people make up 26.4% of the total Federal Prison population (OCI 2017), but only 5% of the federal Canadian population (2021 Stats Can census). In regions such as Thunder Bay and Kenora, Indigenous incarceration rates are as high as 80%–90% in the provincial prisons (Perreault 2009). Many civil rights activists believe that Indigenous overrepresentation in Canadian prisons is a direct result of societal racial biases, discriminatory laws, and intergenerational trauma (Seymore 1983). 

Standardised Uniforms

Camilla Leonelli Calzado analysing photo of incarcerated indigenous man in Stony Mountain Penitentiary -1890.  POUNDMAKER Glenbow. Courtesy of Canada’s Penitentiary Museum. Photo courtesy of Ben Harley

Prisoners in uniform walking back to their cell blocks. Joyceville 1962. Courtesy of Courtesy of Canada’s Penitentiary Museum.

Canadian Prison Uniform Work Shirt, design typical of 1930s. Exhibited in Canada’s Penitentiary Museum 2022.

Co-curator Camilla Leonelli Calzado conducted practice-based research in the creation of replica uniforms. The uniforms pictured were created based on multiple Canadian archival photographs. These photographs gave great insight into the materials, fit, and production of prisoner uniforms. Uniforms often act to create group cohesion and reduce individuality within an organisation (Veeren 1). Uniform design commonly reinforces an institution’s ideals and interacts with the body of the wearer to promote behaviours that align with the organisation’s values (THE EFFECTS OF UNIFORMS IN CORRECTIONS). Institutions also design inmate uniforms to easily identify prisoners and reduce security risks posed by concealed objects (Bailey 2016). With uniforms, the identity of the uniform and what it signifies often dominates the identity of the individual wearer (Veeren 1). From the mid 1800s to the 1970s, the designs and construction of prison uniforms stayed relatively stable they were designed to mimic work uniforms and industrial uniformity. In both styles harsh lines are utilised as identifying features. The 1890’s features colour blocking referred to as ‘magpie’ whereas the 1930’s uses a more subtle pinstripe. Psychologists have demonstrated how clothing can affect how people think and feel (Bailey 2016; Adam & Galinsky 922). Garments, including orange jumpsuits, and patterns such as black and white horizontal stripes, have become embedded with cultural meaning. Research from the Stanford prison experiment suggests that these effects impact not only the viewers of these uniforms but the wearers themselves.

(left) 1890’s Replica Magpie Uniform – 100% Cotton Twill. (right) 1930’s Pinstripe Replica Uniform – 100% Cotton. Courtesy of Camilla Leonelli Calzado and Toronto Metropolitan University’s Fashion Research Collection. 

Leonelli Calzado chose to replicate a uniform from the 1890s as well as a uniform from the 1930s. In both time periods, stiff and drab cottons and wools were used for all parts of the uniform. The materials and fit of uniforms are intentional mechanisms for efficiency and identification. It was not until very recently that prisoners were given more freedom with their work uniforms. The decision to discontinue standardised uniforms was made in the 1990s, and since then, even prisoners at a maximum security level are able to wear their own clothing (CBC 2015). More recently discussions surrounding uniforms and personnel safety have been circulating. In some provinces standardised uniforms have been reintroduced due to climbing numbers in drugs and weapons being smuggled into prisons through personal clothing items. 

Fine Cell Work

Hand-embroidered and printed items have been made by Fine Cell Work, a rehabilitation charity and social enterprise working to empower inmates within the UK Prison system through the art of needle work (About Us). For over 25 years, Fine Cell work has been “transforming the lives of prisoners and prison leavers, one stitch at a time” by engaging inmates in paid, purposeful, professional and creative activities (About Us). Fine Cell Work supports its workers to build work skills, earn and save money, and instil self-belief to rebuild meaningful crime-free lives (About Us). 

Workers create projects from start to finish and as their skills in needle work grow, their opportunity to take on larger, more challenging projects does as well. Proceeds from the products are given to the individual artist and act as a way for them to engage in purposeful activity, creatively express themselves, and earn additional income while incarcerated. As the needle skills of individuals build, so does their ability to complete larger, more complex designs, with inmates even running their own workshops, passing on their art to other inmates.

Prison is a place where time stands still. You have too much time on your hands and nothing to help you get through it. I was desperate to find something to do, to keep me busy, or just make the time go…….My time in prison was now spent with my needle and thread. This was very important to me. It still is! Stitching kept me calm and gave me focus. I can be a bit of a loner, keeping to myself, but stitching made me interact with others. I was working with them as part of a team. Working with others who were keen on stitching gave me a lot of satisfaction.”  – Lewis, a Fine Cell Work stitcher.

While we do not have the voices of the makers of the moccasins from the Warkworth Institution in Ontario, the two examples of the moccasins and Fine Cell Work contrast the methods of education and reform through the penitentiary system, highlighting exploitative and systemic challenges that have been present since its inception.

Jordan House (left) and Asaf Rashid (right) co-authors and guest speakers looking over the Education case during the November 2022 Captive Labour panel event. Photo courtesy of Ben Harley.

“Solidarity Beyond Bars: Unionizing Prison Labour” by Jordan House and Asaf Rashid. Photo courtesy of Ben Harley.

Canadian Prison reform programs have become another tool for the exploitation of vulnerable people. As the Education Case highlights, the exploitation of Canadian Inmates is still a current issue which affects marginalised populations at staggering rates. Renowned for their extensive experience and expertise in the field of labour law and activism, Jordan House and Asaf Rashid have dedicated their careers to studying and advocating for the rights of marginalised populations, particularly those who are incarcerated. Their collective body of work has shed light on the systemic exploitation prevalent within the prison industrial complex, offering a much-needed perspective that challenges prevailing norms and calls for transformative change.

During the highly anticipated Captive Labour panel event, held on November 22nd, 2022, invitations were extended to co-authors, Jordan House and Asaf Rashid, whose recently published book, “Solidarity Beyond Bars: Unionizing Prison Labour,” has garnered significant attention in the legal and social justice realms. The event provided a captivating platform for them to present excerpts from their work and engage in insightful discussions surrounding their research on the exploitation of incarcerated populations, labour law and union potential. 

House and Rashid’s previous work paved the way for the co-curators of the Captive Labour exhibition, Camillia Leonelli Calzado and Sephra Lamothe. In the early stages they exchanged research leads and documents to enrich the project’s depth. The co-curators highly anticipated the launch of this book and we were delighted at the chance to share their work with fellow academics in the field. 

This body of work shares the potential for change in the Canadian Prison System, both federally and provincially. While addressing systemic inequalities and providing tangible solutions and direct pipelines for change and reconciliation. Although Canada needs to make significant changes to increase the rights of incarcerated workers, labour law activists such as House and Rashid are a shining light in the controversial fight for the labour rights of Incarcerated workers.