India’s prison work programs keep inmates busy while helping victims of crime

Steve Mertl
National Affairs Contributor
Daily Brew

Canadian prison inmates have been building furniture and punching out licence plates for decades but CTV News reports India's apparently just waking up to the potential of an imprisoned labour force.

Correspondent Janis Mackey Frayer says Tihar Jail, which at 12,000 inmates is the largest prison complex in south Asia, has been turned into a profitable producer of goods ranging from food products to shoes, with proceeds going to help victims of crime.

Officials told CTV News that Tihar generated $3 million in revenue last year while also teaching prisoners skills that can help them find jobs after they're released.

Its bakery, for instance, produces some of the country's most popular bread, biscuits and muffins.

"I am learning and it passes the time," Ashwini, serving a life sentence for murder, told CTV News.

Inmates also build furniture, sew uniforms and make eco-friendly paper and office supplies ... for the country's police and courts.

Prisoners are paid up to $80 a month but a quarter of that is held back and put into a fund for crime victims.

Brazil, another fast-developing nation, is also trying to engage idle prisoners by shaving time of their sentences in return for reading books.

A prisoner can get four days off for each book read, confirmed by a written book report, to a maximum of 48 days a year, the Globe and Mail reported.

The Redemption Through Reading program, announced last month, is part of a larger effort to deal with inmate illiteracy, in hopes of reducing the recidivism rate and giving prisoners a different view of the outside world, the Globe said.

"A person can leave prison more enlightened and with an enlarged vision of the world," Sao Paulo lawyer Andre Kehdi, who heads a book-donation program, told Reuters.

[Related: Federal prison closures blasted by union]

In Canada, the Globe said, it's estimated two out of three inmates have low literacy skills and almost a third failed to finish elementary school.

It said some studies, including a 1995 Corrections Canada survey whose results have been challenged, suggest recidivism can be cut by 30 per cent among inmates who've successfully completed literacy courses.

Whether it's literacy or work programs, the goal is to release an inmate with more tools to manage successfully in society than he or she came in with.

A 1996 Corrections Canada study of work programs and post-release outcomes suggested uninterrupted participation in voluntary work programs "immediately prior to release may have some positive impact on offender post- release recidivism, particularly for lower risk offenders," especially among those on full parole.

Prison industry can reduce idleness and allow prisoners to earn a little money, the report concluded, while also providing some occupational skills training. But it also has psychological benefits for those who had jobs before going to jail, serving as a coping mechanism.

A Corrections Canada research forum highlights the challenge of finding meaningful work for prisoners to do.

Inmates once played key roles in maintaining the prisons themselves but that's declined with changes to prison staffing, while prison workshops haven't kept pace with the increasing automation of work in the outside world.

And often, federal prisoners aren't kept in one place long enough to establish stable routines.

"Staff also now more frequently describe inmates as unreliable, lazy, inattentive and only capable of performing minimal tasks," the forum document says.

"Although this may reflect changing inmate characteristics, it may also reflect inmate reaction to the fact that most prison work is unnecessary, unchallenging and unvalued."

It suggests a goal of employing at least 20 per cent of inmates in prison industries and farms.

An article on The Dominion web site last February said about 4,800 federal prisoners were involved in various work programs, mostly to provide goods and services to government departments. Though technically voluntary, inmates have little choice but to participate because work is part of their correctional plans. A quarter of their wages goes to room and board.

Critics decried a 2007 decision by Corrections Canada to close six prison farms because they were losing money. The farms, which were closed by 2011, provided meaningful work for prisoners as well as supplying the fresh produce to the institutions.

Of course, Ottawa might want to take a page from Ontario Conservative leader Tim Hudak's book. He's proposing to cut voluntary work programs in favour of chain gangs, using prisoners to clean up highways and erase graffiti, the Toronto Star reported.