Prison farms return!

Prison farms have a long and reputable history in Canada. First established in the prairie provinces more than 100 years ago, farms moved onto federal prison grounds in Ontario in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Canada’s prison capital, Kingston, had two prison farms until 2010, when Stephen Harper’s Conservatives closed the farm program at the six prisons where it was then operating.

The ostensible reason was that the farms cost too much money, but this claim flew in the face of reality: the eggs and milk produced at the Ontario farms fed inmates in both Ontario and Quebec, thus saving Correctional Services Canada (CSC) $2 million in food costs for those prisons.

The decision to close the farms was really rooted in the Conservative government’s law and order agenda, which included such other elements as mandatory minimum sentences.

Non-monetary benefits

Section 718 of the Criminal Code sets out six purposes of sentencing: denunciation, deterrence, separation (of the guilty person from society), rehabilitation, reparation and responsibility.

There seems to be little doubt about the rehabilitative benefits of the prison farm program for the inmates who were able to participate. (At the time the farms were closed, there were 716 inmates working in them.)

As one former inmate, Pat Kincaid, says:

“The cows taught me patience and how to control my anger and how to deal with being upset.”

The Kingston area farms benefitted the community, too, by donating large quantities of eggs to the food market and by injecting money into local farm equipment and supply businesses.

Inmates at Joyceville Institution, just north of Kingston, operate an abattoir that is used by farmers in the area.

Community resistance

Individuals and organizations in the Kingston area mounted an impressive opposition to Harper’s plans to close the prison farms. The Save Our Prison Farms (SOPF) campaign brought together farmers, unions, nuns, anarchists, prison rights activists, members of social justice organizations, anti-poverty activists and other progressive political types covering a wide range of perspectives. Some were drawn to the campaign because they saw the value of the farms to inmates, others because they wanted to ensure the hundreds of acres of farmland on the prison property would remain farmland, others out of opposition to Harper’s law and order agenda and plans to build more prison beds.

Not surprisingly with such a diverse mix of people, there were clashes of ideology and opinion from time to time. However, under the leadership of Dianne Dowling, a local organic farmer and President of National Farmers Union Local 316, the SOPF campaign was highly successful. Actions included letter writing,  speaking to Parliamentary committees, visiting MPs, vigils and civil disobedience. Canadian literary icon Margaret Atwood lent her voice, drawing even more attention to the issue.

The cows leave home

For more than a year, SOPF activists kept attention locally and nationally on the Kingston farms, with the cattle providing an emotional catalyst for many. When the 300 cows at Frontenac Institution were slated to be removed over the weekend of August 7, 2010, the incoming trucks were met by more than 200 demonstrators who seated themselves in the driveway and road and refused to move. Numerous activists ranging in age from 14 to 87 were arrested during the blockade and, eventually, the cows were taken from the facility.

Even this significant setback did not stop SOPF activists, who formed the Pen Herd Farm Co-operative. Co-op members attended the auction held to sell off the prison cattle and bought 23 cows with funds raised by selling cow shares to supporters of the prison farm program. Those cows, with a genetic line dating back to 1942, have been housed and cared for on local farms for the past eight years and now number 35.

The weekly vigils outside Collins Bay Institution continued until March 2018, when the federal budget was released. The issue was front and centre in the 2015 federal election campaign in Kingston.

The cows come home

The SOPF campaign appears to have paid off. The Liberals, who had promised to bring back the farms during the 2015 election, held public consultations on the issue shortly after taking office. In the 2018 budget, $4.3 million over 5 years was allocated to reopen farms at Frontenac and Joyceville, with a promise that farms will be re-instituted at other prisons in upcoming years.

Initially, approximately 500 dairy goats and 35 to 40 dairy cattle (including, it is hoped, the cows presently owned by the Pen Herd Farm Co-op) will be housed at the two institutions. Inmates will work with the animals as well as horticulture, crop production and the repair and rebuilding of farmland.

Is it a perfect ending to this story? No.

The budget allocation is insufficient to do all that needs to be done to restore the farm program. And, in the bigger picture, the problems with Canada’s criminal system, including its prisons, are much greater than even a progressive program like this one can fix.

But it is a good ending to the story, in large part because it is an example of successful community organizing that stayed strong over a long period of time. As Mark Holland, parliamentary secretary to the Minister of Public Safety and long-time supporter of the prison farm program said when announcing the plans to re-open the two Kingston farms:

“I don’t know if anybody will be politically stupid enough to take this on again.  This is not a group you want to go up against.”

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