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More convicts must pay their own way in prison, Toews declares

Public Safety Minister Vic Toews holds a news conference in Ottawa on April 19, 2012.

Sean Kilpatrick/Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

The federal government will charge inmates more money to stay behind bars beginning next year as part of a slate of changes to prison life announced by Public Safety Minister Vic Toews Wednesday.

Charging more for room and board, getting rid of incentive pay tied to certain inmate work and ensuring offenders are charged for their phone calls are among the tough-on-crime changes Mr. Toews said will save a total of more than $10-million each year.

He calls the changes accountability measures. But inmate advocates say the cost-cutting measures toy with chances for rehabilitation.

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Catherine Latimer, executive director of the John Howard Society of Canada, said she is concerned about the changes overall, partially because they're being labelled as accountability measures.

"The accountability for wrongdoing is the sentence that's imposed by the courts and it concerns me that the minister thinks he should be adding to the measure," she said.

The Correctional Service of Canada currently charges inmates at the top of the prison pay scale up to $25 per week for room and board. It comes out of their stipend or pay that's tied to employment in prison if their personal plan allows them to work.

There are six levels of income, ranging from $10 to $69 every two weeks. Starting in 2013/2014, all inmates in the top three levels will pay about 30 per cent of their stipend for room and board at their correctional institution.

"All of these measures build on our record of holding criminals to account and putting the rights of victims and law-abiding citizens first," Mr. Toews said.

A statement from Public Safety Canada said the measure will save more than $4-million annually and align offender contributions with how much "law-abiding Canadians incur for these types of expenses."

Ms. Latimer said the move will take away from the amount prisoners can send their families or the amount they save up, which can help them integrate into society after they're released.

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Kim Pate, executive director of Canadian Association of Elizabeth Fry Societies that advocate for women in prisons, said taking away more pay will be especially difficult for female prisoners.

"They're mostly sole support for their children before they go to prison, a lot of them," she said. "Any extra money they do make ... they send out to their children in the form of gifts or to provide support for them."

She said maintaining a relationship with family is an important indicator of how an inmate will rehabilitate after she is released. "These measures don't seem to be aimed at helping that," Ms. Pate said.

Incentive pay previously tied to meeting production quotas for inmates working in CORCAN shops – prison facilities specializing in textiles, manufacturing, construction and services like printing and laundry – will now be cut.

"Given the demand for participation in CORCAN shops, there is no need or reason to provide so-called incentive pay," Mr. Toews said. His department said that measure will save about $1.8-million annually.

Another change, which Public Safety said will save about $1.7-million each year, is ensuring that inmates pay administrative costs associated with phone use. "You use it – you pay for it," the department said.

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Two changes will affect how inmates purchase goods.

Canteens in institutions will become inmate-owned by transferring the responsibility to inmate committees, saving the government $1.6-million annually. As well, Mr. Toews said his department will also change the way inmates get goods from outside prison. Now, if an inmate needs something that isn't in stock or at the inmate canteen they fill out a request and a staff member goes and buys what they need.

Starting next year, a schedule will be established and staff will go to an established list of suppliers and inmates will be able to order from a catalogue.

"Institutional staff are not personal shoppers," Mr. Toews said. "They deserve the opportunity to focus on the very important jobs we've entrusted them to do inside the walls of the institutions."

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