By Colin McGregor
A man who has been locked up in jail for a long, long time establishes his connection with the soil, in which all good things grow. He gets up early in the morning to milk the cows, feed the pigs and the chickens, fix machinery, and even plant crops. He works as part of a team, building habits that can be of use in his future.
He is still in jail.
But for a moment, this doesn’t feel like prison. This feels like producing food for humanity; it feels like decent labor. And what better preparation can there be for life after prison?
When jails were first established in Canada, some correctional institutions operated working farms to help feed the prisoners and staff. In the beginning, work on the land around the jail was supervised by prison staff with the labor supplied by inmates. As time went on, federal prison farms moved from forced labor operations to places where skills were developed by offenders.
In the 1950s, a formal federal prison farms program was created. By 2009, 600 inmates in six federal penitentiaries were involved. These were large operations that produced milk, eggs, beef, poultry, fruits and vegetables. To work on a prison farm a prisoner had to be classified as minimum security, usually near the end of his sentence. One aim was to train workers to work in agriculture after their release, as there was and still is a perpetual farm labor shortage. Another was to supply eggs and milk to other federal prisons, including those in Québec, even though there were no federal prison farms in the province. They were:
• Pittsburgh (now called Joyceville) and Frontenac (now called Collins Bay) Institutions around 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
In the United States there is also a long tradition of prison farms. The largest in the U.S. is Louisiana State Penitentiary, covering 18,000 acres.
But studies showed that less than one percent of released Canadian offenders who had worked on these prison farms then found employment in the agriculture sector. The government also centralized food distribution to prisons, which meant that prison farms no longer supplied food to institutions, says Calvin Neufeld, founder of the pressure group Evolve our Prison Farms.
So in 2009, the government of Stephen Harper announced the closure of these farms. They were not financially sustainable and “did not reflect labour market demands of today and of the future,” the government said.
By 2011, all six prison farms had been shuttered.
There were protests. Supporters of prison farms, including author Margaret Atwood, argued that the government was ignoring the rehabilitative and healing effects that farming offers low-risk inmates.
And when 300 cows were removed from Kingston, Ontario’s Frontenac Institution in August 2010, 14 protesters blocked the exit and were arrested.
Movements instantly sprung up across the country to save the prison farms. For years, Save our Prison Farms protestors held a vigil every Monday in Kingston, Ontario.
Justin Trudeau’s Liberals agreed that Canada’s prison farms should be reopened. They promised to do just that during the 2015 election campaign, which they won. And in 2019 the Feds earmarked $4.3 million to reopen the two in Ontario, including Collins Bay, which is over 100 years old.
“[It’s] a victory for community support, the hundreds of people that would come out to events, would write letters and petitions, make phone calls” Debbie Dowling, a member of Save our Prison Farms, told the CBC at the time.
Today crops are being grown, there is beekeeping, and there are cows. The Correctional Service says that “technical, transferable and soft skills” are being learned, and that at last count 247 vocational certificates directly related to agriculture have been issued to offenders.
Federal prison farms in other provinces have not yet been reopened.
Yet there is disagreement within the farming community as to how the new farms should be run.
The Feds’ original plan for Joyceville was to build a factory farm for intensive goat milk production, churning out 9,000 litres of goat milk a day from over 2,000 goats. Their milk would then be sent to a baby formula factory being built in the Kingston area by a Chinese company, Feihe. But as of now plans of supplying Feihe’s “Canada Royal Milk” infant formula company are “temporarily paused” for a re-evaluation. There are fears among critics that cheap prison labor could be exploited to export baby formula to China.
Instead, the Correctional Service has allocated $10.5 million to build a state-of-the-art dairy operation at Joyceville capable of handling 60 cows.
The Evolve our Prison Farms movement would like to see a more environmentally friendly plant-based farm model instituted instead.
Calvin Neufeld thinks it would make more sense to grow crops. “Dairy farming is 24/7,” he says, “and the inmates can’t be there nights or weekends. There’s no way to maintain operations at that level of complexity.” Moreover, participating in factory farming transmits few if any valuable social or work skills, his organization argues. There are misgivings about the sometimes cruel ways in which factory farms are operated. The goats would be confined to pens their whole lives rather than being able to pasture.
“They’re lucky they didn’t buy the goats before COVID,” Neufeld says. “Planting crops makes more sense.” Inmates and staff don’t have to be present all the time. And when you plant a crop, “if it fails, it fails. There’s far more flexibility. And the crops serve any number of social uses. You can send them to as food bank, native centres, or other places as well.” Producing organic fruits and vegetables for prisoners and community food organizations would be is organization’s preference.
Neufeld still suspects that the government is still intent on building a goat dairy operation at Joyceville: “It’s all about the goats!”
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