Last May, I had the opportunity to attend the Canadian Association for Study in Cooperatives. It was held at Brock University as part of the annual Congress of Social Studies and Humanities Research Council. There were, as usual, a number of exciting and fantastic papers matched only by the lively and open discussions.
Perhaps one of the most fascinating presentations was work by Isobel Findlay from the Edwards School of Business at the University of Saskatchewan. I always enjoy her presentations as her work almost always examines how cooperatives can benefit and re-power the most marginalized populations in Western economics and culture. This presentation was no different as it considered the potential for worker cooperatives within the prison industry. This model would membership institutionalized women and provide them with the means to assist in the support of their families and maintaining a level of dignity during incarceration. It would also provide knowledge, skills and abilities that would be useful upon release.
People in the United States often see Canada as a euro-centric country that is “nice” and “pleasant’. Yet, far too often, it takes after the United States and its growing prison population is no exception. Canada’s prison population has increased 25% over the last ten years and the population of prisoners deemed “visible” minorities” has increased 75% (http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada-s-prison-population-at-all-time-high-1.2440039). Findlay also noted that Aboriginal women make up the fastest growing population with an 85% growth rate. She argued that “Marginality is too often a life sentence that takes the form of invisibility or hyper visibility. Over-policed and under-protected, it will cost Saskatchewan $13 billion over the next twenty years that could be used for better things.” She continued that if all citizens were truly treated equally (and by this I would understand that the incarceration rate for all groups would be equal to that of white men and women), it would bring $90 billion to the economy over this same time period.
Prison worker coops exist in other countries (mostly Italy) where those who participate have significantly lower recidivism rates. In one (and artist cooperative), one member said that “it made me realize that there are still people out there who appreciate who I am.” In Puerto Rico, there are three men’s worker coops and plans to start a women’s coop. Members learn the values and ethics of cooperation especially that of mutual self-help. It is clear that they also gain self-worth and confidence that they can succeed. These coops allow the workers to earn a wage that can be used to support their family and keep those connections strong.
Worker coops could create the support structures that the prison system currently fails to provide especially once people are out although this might require some amendments to laws that provide felons from associating with one another.
Findlay noted that this research is difficult because it challenges the command and control of the prison system and she noted that the “state” bristles when academics “commit sociology.” Nevertheless, it seems that the coop model could provide a means for true rehabilitation. I realize that has long ceased to be the focus of the prison system especially for those areas where it has been privatized and the inmates turned into product for the benefit of shareholders and for-profit corporations. However, as people can show that cooperation does more than simply provide a paycheck, society’s rulers might see a real community value to changing how we treat all members of our community.
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