Labour Studies Index

Updated: 2022-05-16

Legitimating the “Fiasco”: Canadian State Justifications of CORCAN Prison Labour

Document type Thesis
Author Kleuskens, Shanisse
Degree Master of Arts, Criminology
Publisher Université d'Ottawa / University of Ottawa; Ottawa
Date 2015
Pages 154 pages


Since Kingston Penitentiary’s opening in 1835, prison labour has been an integral part of Canada’s penal history. With purported goals such as deterrence, rehabilitation, reintegration, and providing sustenance to the state, the practice of coercing or forcing a prisoner to work while serving a sentence of incarceration was further embedded in the penal landscape in 1980 with the inception of CORCAN, the Correctional Service of Canada’s prison labour program. Despite critiques of the prison as “a fiasco in terms of its own purposes” (Mathiesen, 2006, p. 141), prison labour continues as a mechanism of the state’s penal apparatus. Drawing on political economy of punishment and penal abolitionism literature, this study reveals and disrupts official discourses used to justify and perpetuate this modern form of slavery in Canada. Through a content analysis of 33 Solicitor General of Canada and CORCAN annual reports, I demonstrate how CORCAN’s prison labour program is legitimated as a “positive reform” (Mathiesen, 1974, p. 202) of Canada’s penal system, beneficial to the reintegration of prisoners into society, communities, and the needs of the Canadian state and economy. Underneath this benevolent mask such representations are found to reproduce neoliberal capitalism as the hegemonic form of economic organization, construing prisoners and prison labour as solutions to the gaps and shifts in the national economy and labour market. After outlining these contributions, I suggest ways that future research can reveal and discredit penal ‘solutions’ such as prison labour to eradicate the penal system as a means to address the harms inherent in our social and economic systems.