Prison farms to end in Canada?

Back in February of 2009, the federal Government announced plans to shut down Canada’s 6 prison farms, including two in the Kingston area:

  • Pittsburgh and Frontenac Institutions in Kingston, Ontario
  • Westmorland Institution in Dorchester, New Brunswick
  • Rockwood Institution in Stoney Mountain near Winnipeg, Manitoba
  • Riverbend Institution near Prince Albert, Saskatchewan
  • Bowden Institution in Innisfail near Calgary, Alberta

Though some of these farm programs been around since the 1880′s, officials say they’re now money losers and no longer provide skills relevant to modern employment needs.

The planned closures are making waves in Kingston, where trucks recently rolled in to remove Frontenac’s well-regarded dairy herd.

Maybe it’s just because summer puts a lot of us in a farm-friendly state of mind.  But this decision – and its implementation – seems tone deaf, at best.

On the one hand, the government is standing firm on practical and economic arguments to shut down this program.

But does this play well next to the almost-religious rediscovery that locally-produced food has intrinsic value? Issues of sustainability and food security, which continue to grow in importance? The quaint notion that prisoners might save tax dollars by producing their own sustenance? That some prisoners might be far happier working at farm tasks, outdoors, with animals, rather than sitting in cells, or in courses on computing skills?

After all, a good percentage of people who end up in prison didn’t fare that well in school. And intelligence comes in many forms, including those who prefer real-world, practical, ‘do-ing’ to classroom instruction.

I doubt anyone realized prison farms in Canada had so many sympathizers. But they are out there. Including regular farmers. And many are hopping mad. Some for environmental reasons, some want to save prison farm jobs. But I suspect they’re also mad because the threatened shut-down feels like yet another shrug of indifference to the values that built countries like Canada and the U.S. in the first place: working to eat, and taking pride in what is accomplished by one’s own efforts.

This is a long-running sore point for those who feel agriculture and old fashioned sweat get little respect in a culture that increasingly worships sleek urban values.

A website called ‘Save Our Prison Farms‘ goes into the subject at length.

It’s become a social protest movement in Kingston. Trying to save the herd, about 100 protesters attempted a blockade on August 8 & 9, something that resulted in a reported 24 arrests. The usual G-8 anarchists goons were not leading the charge. We’re talking folks like an 87-year-old grandmother, a 14-year-old girl and her mother, and award-winning English professor Michael Hurley, who wrote passionately about his night in jail here.

According to this CTV report of Aug 9, that encounter’s experience left many prison farm supporters discouraged, and saw some 8,000 chickens and 300 cows removed for auction in Waterloo, Ontario. Federal policy makers are unmoved.

Public Safety Minister Vic Toews said Monday fewer than one per cent of inmates who work on the farms continue with farming work when they are released from custody.
“My responsibility as public safety minister is to ensure that individuals who are in our facilities receive training that is appropriate, receive skills that are appropriate to the environment they will be returning too,” Toews said.

In spite of the uphill battle, supporters haven’t given up.  On-going efforts include a pot-luck rally  in Kingston tonight (Thurs, Aug 19) “6 p.m. until the cows come home City Park south of Bagot Street, Kingston”

Now, to connect this subject to the prison scene in the U.S.

Back in August of 2009, there was an outstanding report from NPR’s Laura Sullivan on the reality (and implications) of slashing prison programs in cash-strapped California.

Sullivan mentioned cuts to a popular program at Folsom Prison that taught inmates to translate books into Braille.

In 20 years, not a single inmate who has been part of the program has ever returned to prison.

Consider that Wikipedia says the recidivism rate for prisoners in the U.S. is 44.1% after just one year and rises to 67.5% within three years of release. Those are unhappy, alarming statistics. Surely programs that prevent prison from becoming a (horrendously expensive) revolving door represent real economic and social value.

Sullivan’s report is sobering. A caption in her accompanying slide show spoke volumes:

Like all California prisons, Folsom is overcrowded. Its official capacity is 1,813; it now hold 4,427 men, segregated by race. Even in the yard, races don’t mix.

When Johnny Cash famously sang there back in 1968, Sullivan reports Folsom was actually considered something of a model prison, with only one person per cell. And nearly all had access to school or learning a trade. Today, some cell blocks reportedly stack beds five high. And most training programs are being slashed or eliminated.

…hovering above the prison is China Hill, a now-barren field where inmates once trained to become landscapers. The prison can’t afford to pay the teacher.

Warden Michael Evans can see China Hill just outside his office. Its meaning is not lost on him.”If I have a dog and I put him in a cage and I beat [him] regularly, ultimately [it] will bite me when I open that door,” he said.

After three decades working in corrections, Evans says he has come to one conclusion. “I think that prisons should be a place where an individual has the opportunity to change if they choose to,” he said, “and we move forward from there.”

These are challenging economic times, to say the least. A number of states teeter at the edge of outright insolvency.  Although the situation may be less dire in Canada, at first glance, a less-than 1% rate retention rate of former prisoners who seek farm employment after being released (as claimed by Canada’s Public Safety Minister Toews) doesn’t sound like a very good return on scarce dollars.

Still, if prisoners can produce wholesome food, earn their keep, learn skills and improve (transferable) work habits – all of which helps them stay out of jail in the future – isn’t that something worth supporting?

What do you think?

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2 Comments on “Prison farms to end in Canada?”

  1. Louise says:

    I was one of those protesters because I’m sick and tired of this government thinking that people need to be locked away and the key thrown away.

    To me, the closure of the farms, represents the warehousing of humans.

    I was not warehoused in prison, but I was warehoused in the psychiatric system for many years and was put on the forensic ward, even though I never commit a crime.

    It wasn’t until I got off the medications they first started me on at the age of 12 for a depression, that I realized they were creating a mental illness by giving me more and more medications… up to 50 pills a day.

    Now the psych hospitals have been closed down and the prisons are being filled up with people who are diagnosed as mentally ill.

    Thank God I finally fought my way off the medicaitons in 2004 and the mental illness vanished.

    Social skills are hugely lacking after having 22 years inside an institution so, I fully GET why the prisoners NEED THESE FARMS.

    They get to learn a useful skill that will carry them later, when they get out of prison, which in Canada, they invariably will.

    Thanks for airing this issue outside of our borders!!

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  2. Lucy Martin says:

    It’s easy to write people off, sometimes in ways that become self-fulfilling prophesies. And it’s such a waste of untapped potential.

    Louise, I am glad you found your way out and haven’t forgotten others left behind.

    Best of luck!

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