B.C. prison inmates fighting to unionize
The Canadian Press
Published Friday, March 4, 2011 4:28PM PST
Inmates at a British Columbia prison are in the final stages of efforts to form their own union to press for their rights as workers within the institution.
Their lawyer, Natalie Dunbar, said Friday organizers at Mountain Institution in Agassiz are trying to sign up members for ConFederation, Canadian Prisoners' Labour Union, Local 001.
A spokeswoman for the institution said administrators are moving very carefully because no penal institution in Canada has ever been confronted with the issue.
"It's a new element for us," assistant warden Brenda Lamm said. "We've never had inmates trying to organize a labour union before so that's why we're proceeding cautiously and thoughtfully."
Dunbar said there's a lack of resources at federal institutions to address issues that plague prison populations as a workforce, such as proper work boots and qualified first-aid personnel.
Inmates work in the facility's store, the cafeteria and as plumbers' and electricians' assistants. Some also work on the facility's vehicles at the institution's garage and others are considered employed while they take various courses.
"These are Canadian citizens," Dunbar said.
"They've been granted, in previous Supreme Court hearings, the right to vote and this is another really basic right they're looking for," she said of their desire to unionize.
"They're not asking for fancy TVs in jail. This is not an issue of comfort or reduction of sentences or making jails more cosy for prisoners. It's an issue of basic rights."
She said inmates hope a union will help them work towards their own rehabilitation and that similar attempts to create unions have taken place in the United States and the United Kingdom.
Dunbar said the move to unionize has also been prompted by a "complete slowdown" of the process to address grievances.
But the unionization idea has met with resistance from administrators, she said.
Lamm said such allegations are unfounded. The institution has contacted Corrections Canada in Ottawa to find out how to respond.
"The inmate who's organizing this wrote us a letter and he requested a response back by the 15th of March so I'm hopeful that I will be able to address his issues and concerns by that time," Lamm said.
She said administrators must respond to a grievance within 30 days although extensions are sometimes required.
"With a population of almost 400 inmates, we process numerous grievances every day."
She also said prisoners' first aid and medical needs are a priority and inmates are not required to work without the proper safety equipment.
"We have an entire health-care unit on site within the institution that's staffed 16 hours a day and in the event that medical attention is required after the nurses leave for the day, then we send inmates to outside hospitals. Inmates have access to health care 24 hours a day."
While Dunbar said the prison is overcrowded, Lamm said there are currently 397 inmates at the facility that has a capacity for 450 prisoners.
Conservative B.C. MP Stockwell Day told CTV News he isn't necessarily opposed to the idea.
"I think if there are things that people working together can do to make their hopes and opportunities better, to see their offenders move ahead, then those discussions should happen," he said.
With files from CTV British Columbia's Jon Woodward