In November 1992, a new law called the Corrections and Conditional Release Act came into the world. Six years in gestation, the CCRA outlined how incarcerated Canadian citizens – and those incarcerating them – are to conduct themselves during a federal prison sentence. For Corrections, the new legislation was as revolutionary as the U.S. Constitution – and no less controversial. In an amusing twist of irony, the document’s emphasis on rehabilitation over retribution has recently made it popular with the owner-operators of the American prison system, just as Canada dives headlong into a punishment model that those same folks are discarding.
Yet there’s one feature of Canada’s progressive corrections law that you probably won’t find in the prison system of any other G8 country. The clause reads: “The Commissioner or a staff member designated by the Commissioner may grant approval to an inmate to conduct a business, in accordance with the procedures set out in Commissioner’s Directives.” And it was eight years ago that the unexplored possibilities in this lone sentence brought me into contact with a remarkable Canadian woman — a woman who believes that one of the best ways for a person to repay their debt to society is through a federal tax form.
“My name is Stacey Corriveau and I’m here today to talk to you about small business.” Her eyes scanned ours – a group of ten cons who, the previous week, had scrawled our names on an enrollment sheet in the Programs building. Each had come for their own reasons. Some were getting out that year and wanted to know if their future plans to feed themselves were feasible. For some, the nutritional need was more immediate — they had heard there might be free donuts. I was there because my kid desperately needed braces, and the $25 per week I earned in inmate pay just wouldn’t get it done.
“How many of you here today have previous business experience?”
Hands shot up around the room. “Wow, that’s awesome. What was your business?” She pointed to one clean-cut con with boy-next-door looks.
“Really?” The effervescent Ms. Corriveau suddenly looked skeptical.
“Yeah – I had a bunch of speed labs. It was like a franchise.”
“Oh. O.K.” she said, blinking rapidly. “Well… anybody else? What about you?”
“My brother and I ran a chop-shop once. But I just stole the cars – mostly.”
“She’s talking about real businesses you one-watts,” said an obviously annoyed prisoner named Kelvin. “Before I came in, I was an independent securities broker.”
“Great,” said Stacey, inflating again. “And how did that go for you?”
“It was outstanding. I was good at it and made a lot of money. Unfortunately, I had one bad week.”
“Yeah, the week he lost 6 million day-trading other people’s money before they found out he didn’t even have a broker’s license,” blurted one of the class clowns.
The trader-cum-jailbird shrugged. “That’s business.”
Maybe it was my imagination, but from where I sat, the speechless sigh that dribbled out of the buoyant business coach next might well have been the sound of a million tiny bubbles popping.
One of the more unusual concepts in the Canadian prison system is that, given twenty acres of arable land and the services of four hundred strong backs, it will cost a warden $30 million a year to run his prison. Somewhere in Saskatchewan, some spud-growing sod-buster is scratching his head over that math. The problem is that, while every government since the Diefenbaker Conservatives has preached free market capitalism as mankind’s salvation, the clink has remained as stubbornly socialist as a Trotsky thesis paper. All prisoners wear the same state-sponsored uniform (blue jeans and t-shirts) – everyone receives the same portion of food – and everyone gets basically the same wage, no matter how difficult their daily employment tasks are or how diligently they perform it. Ayn Rand may be the patron saint of Canada’s majority government, but in the Big House the hammer and sickle still rules the day – despite the most heroic efforts.
“Guess what’s in this envelope?” Stacey asked me one fall afternoon a couple years later.
Unfortunately, I’m no good at that game. Whenever someone asks, I always guess “my immediate release papers?”
“No. It’s the new Standing Order for ‘Inmate Operated Businesses’ – signed by the Warden this morning.” A Standing Order is a policy document that turns law into reality. For eighteen months, Stacey and I had been working along with others on a foolproof model for prisoners to operate a sole proprietorship and pay taxes from behind bars. For six of those months, the policy had been with lawyers in Ottawa. Now it was back. Stacey handed me the manila envelope like it was a newborn.
“Thirty-six pages?” I said. “Thirty-six pages?”
I thumbed through the dense legalize, noting the profusion of six-syllable words – before I started to laugh. Foolproof capitalism might have its place on your side of the fence, but unless Kevin O’Leary becomes Prime Minister, there’ll be hundred dollar an ounce gold again before you see a free market in the house of fools.