Alarm bells sounded over poppy-making prisoners

Poppy pins put jail staff at risk: Union

For the next five years, Remembrance Day poppies in Canada will be assembled by federal prisoners.

TRICO evolution, an Ottawa-based communications and marketing company, recently won the contract to construct poppies for the Royal Canadian Legion. TRICO went on to subcontract the poppy-making to the Correctional Service of Canada (CSC) as part of its CORCAN program.

CORCAN is one of the CSC’s key rehabilitation programs. It provides offenders with skills training and employment while incarcerated in federal penitentiaries through on-the-job and certified vocational training. The program focuses on manufacturing, textiles, construction and services as a way of promoting inmates’ safe reintegration into society.

About 60 inmates in minimum, medium and maximum-security facilities in Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba will be putting the poppies together.

But some have raised concerns over whether all inmates should have access to the pins.

Scott Ferris, director of marketing and membership with the Ottawa-based Royal Canadian Legion, said the organization has no problem with TRICO’s choice.

"We’ve been given assurances by (the CSC) as to the safety and security of the environment in which the putting together of the poppies is going to be happening," Ferris said. "There are 18 million poppies that were made this year and we want to keep that work happening in Canada. These are individuals that we are told are going through rehabilitation programs prior to their release. If this is something that is going to help these current inmates rehabilitate and contribute back to Canadian society, then we think that’s okay. This is a group of society that we can’t turn our back on."

Ferris reported the poppy campaign raised $14 million last year for veterans and their families.

With preparations for next year’s Remembrance Day set to begin as early as December, the Union of Canadian Correctional Officers (UCCO) has concerns about the contract. The introduction of up to 18 million pins into a medium or maximum-security institution poses serious safety problems, said Prairies-region president of the union, James Bloomfield.

"There are zero controls being put into place," Bloomfield said. "The concern for us is the introduction of those needles into the population and not having any controls over them or security measures put in place at this time."

Bloomfield reported violent incidents are on the rise in maximum-security institutions and said the introduction of millions of needles into the prison system increases risks for both correctional officers and prisoners.

Inside Canada’s federal institutions, Bloomfield said, the rate of HIV is seven times higher than in the general public and the rate of Hepatitis C is 30 to 40 per cent higher. Homemade tattoos contribute to these heightened rates, and the presence of 18 million pins inside Canada’s prisons will only contribute to this problem, Bloomfield said.

The pins used for poppies are pre-bent, and practically tailor-made for homemade tattoo rigs.

"These things are ready to go for that and it’s a huge concern for our prisons. The tattooing and the passing of anything from Hepatitis C to HIV through the tattooing process just increases the risk for us."

Because the poppy contract will run in addition to CORCAN’s current shops, there will be no direct supervision of individual inmates, Bloomfield said, meaning individuals participating in the project will only be under general supervision. The possibility of needles being concealed and smuggled into the institution is high, he said — especially because the size of the needles prevents them from being picked up in metal detectors.

"It comes down to us patting them down," Bloomfield said of the inmates making poppies. "The gloves we have on at that point are not puncture-resistant — they’re only slash-resistant." The possibility of being pricked by a needle is very high and this type of injury is much more dangerous for a correctional officer than it would be for a member of the general population.

"We go through approximately six months of testing," Bloomfield said. "In that time period, depending on your level of exposure, you have to ingest this cocktail of sorts." Correctional officers are unable to work during this period, and while taking antiretroviral drugs they are advised not to have significant physical contact with their family or friends.

"So a puncture through a glove ends me up in the hospital and on the cocktail for six weeks. I’m off work for that six weeks and for the next six weeks I can’t kiss my kids goodnight."

While UCCO has serious reservations about bringing up to 18 million needles into all of its federal institutions, the union does support the program in minimum-security prisons.

"We feel like it could easily be done in our minimum-security facilities," Bloomfield said, explaining the program is better suited for a minimum-security facility. "There is absolutely no reason why the 60 inmates participating cannot be pulled from the minimums. It’s a matter of making sure we have the safety measures in place to deal with it appropriately."

CORCAN’s current catalogue includes everything from beds for homeless shelters and the military to ergonomic office chairs, and prisoners participate in renovation and construction projects. Jeff Campbell, regional communications manager for CSC, said CORCAN and CSC will apply the same rigorous safety precautions required by other shop programs to the production of poppies.

"Ensuring the safety and security of institutions, staff, and public remains the highest priority in the operations of the federal correctional system," Campbell said. "Inmates working on CORCAN operations are screened for their suitability prior to starting their work and are under supervision while assembling poppies."

Latest stories