History of CORCAN and the evolution of prison industries


Dorchester Institution shoe shop, circa 1925.

Dorchester Institution shoe shop, circa 1925.

Prison industry in Canada has been around as long as penitentiaries and, perhaps, even longer. In the 1830s, crime and punishment issues began to take hold of the public mind in developing Upper Canada. It was obvious that there needed to be some form of penal system that would improve on the system of local penitentiaries that existed at the time.

Governments of the day strongly believed in hard work as a significant contributor to an inmate's rehabilitation, allowing him or her to develop the habits necessary to successfully return to society. As new penitentiaries were built across the country, each incorporated space for inmate workshops. This included the development of farms at several locations to supply food to the penitentiaries, and work opportunities to inmates.

By 1853, Kingston Penitentiary was complete ’ in great part thanks to the use of inmate labour. At the time, labour was thought to be essential to the operation of a penitentiary. Those who operated them thought that work was an integral part of life in a penitentiary, both for punishment and rehabilitation. Kingston Penitentiary became a major centre for industry in the area. Labour was sold to private businesses, such as cabinetmakers and stonecutters, and farming was carried out both inside and outside the walls.

In his 1842 work, American Notes for General Circulation, Charles Dickens comments on his travels through North America. He makes the following observations about Kingston Penitentiary during his stop in that city.

"There is an admirable jail here, well and wisely governed, and excellently regulated in every respect. The men were employed as shoemakers, rope-makers, blacksmiths, tailors, carpenters, and stone cutters; and in the building of a new prison, which is pretty far advanced towards completion. The female prisoners were occupied in needlework."

Not surprisingly, the penitentiary was also the first site of controversy about prison industry. Tradesmen in the area were concerned not only with the potential loss of business that convict labour could bring about, but with the loss of social status and the holding back of economic development in the area as well.

During the latter part of the 19th century and the early part of the 20th century, the construction of penitentiaries continued at a great rate. In addition to work on the construction itself, shops were quickly set up to employ inmates in a variety of industries including farming, carpentry, machine shops, auto repair, stonecutting, shoe making, and printing. However, the opposition to prison industry gradually forced penitentiaries to stop "competing" with private businesses, and their products were sold to a narrower set of clients.

As the correctional system evolved, the focus on labour as a punishment decreased in favor of greater attention being paid to vocational training and "industry as rehabilitation." By 1951, prison industry was closely linked with vocational training. This stemmed in some part from the decision to reduce the concentration on selling and cost reduction, and the increasing influence of social work and psychology on the correctional system. In 1966, the Treasury Board approved a plan to place training over industrial activity and merge the two sectors. Unfortunately, the plan did not contain provisions for marketing products, and in the following years, vocational training was considered a disappointment.

The Creation of CORCAN

The disappointment that was vocational training caused the Correctional Service of Canada (CSC) to re-examine the role of prison industry. A series of reports to CSC argued for increased government use of penitentiary products, increased public relations activity about prison industry, and more realistic work conditions within shops in penitentiaries. In 1980, the CORCAN trademark was launched.

In the late 1980s, CSC began to examine the possibility of creating a Special Operating Agency (SOA) to manage prison industries. As a result, CORCAN became a SOA in 1992. The advantages of SOA status were clear: more transparent cost accounting, more businesslike financial management, an easier means of embarking on joint ventures with private sector firms, a better ability to respond to market needs and demands, and developing offender skills closer to private-sector standards.

In the twenty years since the inception of the SOA, CORCAN has been able to dramatically increase training opportunities for offenders in thirty-nine sites across the country, including the community. On any given day, 2000 offenders work in CORCAN's shops and in the course of a year, over 4000 offenders benefit from CORCAN's on-the-job training opportunities. Successful business operations have created surpluses that have been re-invested in capital equipment or vocational training opportunities for offenders.

CORCAN continues to employ offenders in construction activities primarily for CSC, the production of furniture for internal use and resale, the manufacturing of inmate clothing and bedding, and in other institutional activities just as the prison industries program was doing over 170 years ago.

Over the years, these core businesses have been augmented by the addition of new businesses and product lines. These help ensure that CORCAN continues to increase the number of offenders who benefit from the program, while ensuring the training and work experiences provided are relevant to today's labour market.

Employability Skills Development

In 2010-2011 CORCAN offered over 2,000 offender training positions at its 39 work sites, including the community. Given that the average placement lasts about six months, approximately 4,000 offenders were involved in CORCAN operations throughout the year. These offenders produced nearly $60 million worth of products and services that year.

The emphasis of CORCAN's training is on the development of generic skills, attitudes, and behaviours like problem solving, communication, and team work; skills easily applied to essentially all forms of employment. Offenders also learn important job-specific skills (e.g. welding) during CORCAN employment.

Work supervisors have an integral role in the development of these employability skills in offenders. CORCAN instructors are experts in their trade and many hold journeyperson designations. While working directly with offenders in the workplace, they serve as powerful role models. Offender trainees model their behaviour after instructors, and apply these behaviours to their jobs. As a result, the behaviours become internalized as experience, rather than as an abstract concept learned in the classroom. CORCAN employment also offers an opportunity to practice and internalize skills taught in other correctional programs (e.g. anger management and academic courses).

Industrious Workforce

In 1995, CSC researchers found that CORCAN participants were less likely to return to custody upon release, compared to the national average, and that former CORCAN participants now living in the community were better equipped to find a job, and more importantly, were more successful in finding employment. The findings also indicated that community employment support for released offenders, such as CORCAN's Work Site projects, significantly reduced recidivism rates for offenders who were able to find employment within six months of their release.

CORCAN's Markets/Clients

CORCAN has traditionally marketed itself to federal departments. Departments such as CSC, the Department of National Defence, and Public Works and Government Services Canada had traditionally bought the bulk of CORCAN's products.

In recent years, CORCAN has moved to a more diversified product line and begun to market its products and services to a greater number of departments. Also, CORCAN has begun to explore new markets in a more systematic way than before. This has been accomplished with the help of an increasing number of private-sector partners.