OTTAWA | March 5, 2010

Prison farms facing execution

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Canada's prison farms won't find a reprieve in the newly shuffled Conservative cabinet, much to the frustration of those fighting to keep the farms alive.

Last year, the federal government announced the farms, located at six minimum-security prisons across the country, would be shut down by March 31, 2011.

Their sign says it all. Picketers make their point with a placard tied to a tree outside the Kingston offices of Correctional Services Canada.

Peter Van Loan, then-minister of public safety, said the farms were losing $4 million a year and weren't teaching inmates the kind of skills that would help them get jobs upon release.            

In January, Vic Toews, MP for Provencher, Man., took over Van Loan's portfolio, which includes responsibility for the Correctional Service of Canada. So far, he's sticking to his predecessor's plan.

Andrew McCann, a spokesperson for Save Our Farms, a Kingston-based coalition trying to change the government's mind, says he can't understand how a politician from rural Manitoba can ignore the value of working on a farm.

"You learn the teamwork skills, the work discipline. You get up at 5 o'clock in the morning. It's the perfect thing for inmates to go on to be able to do a range of different activities," McCann says.

Forging ahead

Wayne Easter, Liberal MP for Malpeque, P.E.I. and the party's agriculture critic, says the cabinet shuffle gave Toews a chance to go back on the decision.

"The ink wasn't even dry on his appointment and he was putting out the same propaganda as the previous minister was," says Easter, a staunch supporter of the prison farm program.

Easter has made recent visits to four prison farms: Westmorland Institution in New Brunswick, Rockwood Institution in Manitoba and the Pittsburgh and Frontenac Institutions, both in Kingston. The other two are at Riverbend Institution in Saskatchewan and Bowden Institution in Alberta.

"The ink wasn't even dry on his appointment and he was putting out the same propaganda as the previous minister was"

At these minimum-security prisons, inmates can work on the farms or in one of the other job training programs, including manufacturing, construction, textiles, printing or laundry.

Many of the inmates are nearing the end of their sentences for offences that range from drug crimes to robbery to murder. The employment programs are intended to ease the transition back into society and the government feels the farms just aren't doing that.

According to CSC, less than one per cent of offenders find work on farms after they're released.

In an e-mail, David Charbonneau, a spokesperson for Public Safety Canada, writes that offenders who find work after their release are less likely to re-offend.

"As such, we would better serve prisoners (and society) by having training focus on skills that lead to actual jobs in the community," he writes.

Van Loan also touted the closures as a potential boon to the Canadian farmers and livestock producers, who could bid to replace the food currently supplied to the prisons by their own farms.

 

Supplying others

Wishful the cow takes a break from a Save Our Farms picket outside Correctional Services Canada in Kingston.

Right now, the farms would impress any local food advocate. The dairy herd at Frontenac, for example, produces enough milk to feed inmates at the federal correctional institutions in Ontario and western Quebec. 

The operations at each farm are different and some are already in advanced stages of closure, but at one time, they all supplied something, whether beef, pork, milk or eggs, to their own institution. Any leftovers were donated to local food banks.

Dianne Dowling, a Kingston-area farmer and president of the National Farmers Union Local 316, says she doesn't buy the government's rationale for shutting down the farms.

She says contracts to supply food to CSC are for large quantities and open NAFTA-wide, meaning farmers are competing with suppliers from across Canada, the United States and Mexico.

"It's not as if the food services people are down at the Kingston farmer's market buying today's lunch," she says.

Kingston's local NFU chapter is one group behind Save Our Farms, along with the Frontenac Cattlemen's Association, Kingston Urban Agriculture Action Committee and the Sisters of Providence of St. Vincent de Paul.

Working for support

In recent weeks, members of the coalition have spent their Monday mornings demonstrating at the local CSC offices and outside the prison farms' gates.

McCann says it appears the public is on side with Save Our Farms, judging by the cacophony of car horns their pickets meet.

"I think it's a mistake, just from a rehabilitative point of view"

That could be because the farms, according to McCann, spend over a million dollars in the local economy each year, mostly on farm equipment, repair services and animal feed.

"If you pull the plug on those two major customers, it will undercut some of the services that local farmers depend on," he says. " Van Loan had it completely backwards. These farms are not competing with farmers; these farms are synergistic."

Oakley Clow owns Clow Farm Equipment, Kingston's local John Deere dealer. His business has been supplying tractors to the Frontenac farm since the1960s.  He says sales to the prison have declined in recent years, as they haven't been replacing old equipment. Still, he doesn't want to see the prison farms shut down.

"I think it's a mistake, just from a rehabilitative point of view," says Clow, adding that he's heard tales of transformation from friends of his who work on the prison farms supervising inmates.

More than just work

Clow recalls the story of one inmate, who had been in the correctional system since he was 18. Before his arrest for a drug offence, he was living on the streets after getting kicked out of his house in his early teens.

 

Wayne Easter tours the dairy operation at Westmorland Institution in Dorchester, New Brunswick.

Clow says the young man worked his way up on the Frontenac farm, from a pitchfork in the manure to the driver's seat of a tractor.

"He said it was the first time he ever had a sense of ownership over anything," Clow says.

Easter agrees that the prison farms do more than just teach inmates how to work. "Working with something living, it does something for the human psyche," he says.

CSC hasn't done any studies on the rehabilitative aspect of the prison farms nor does it track recidivism rates for inmates who participate in the program while in prison.

Easter says he will soon put a motion before the Committee for Public Safety about the prison farm program. He says he hopes it will put pressure on the government to change its mind.

Until then, Easter says the mood among staff and inmates at the prison farms he visited is one of discouragement and helplessness. After being able to work outside and with animals, inmates in particular dread the closures.

"They said to me, 'What are we supposed to do now? Just go back and sit in our cells?'"

CORCAN

Even though the prison farms operate through Correctional Services Canada (CSC), CORCAN administers the farms. CORCAN is a rehabilitation program of the CSC. It provides employment training and employability skills to offenders in federal correctional institutions. CORCAN operates in 31 institutions across Canada. It operates four other business lines: textiles, manufacturing, construction and services (such as printing and laundry). CORCAN shops operate as private businesses.

Source: Correctional Services of Canada

Value of the farms

The following table shows the assessed value of land and buildings at prison farm institutions in Canada.

Institution

Province

Assessed Value ($)

Bowden

Alberta

437,410

Riverbend

Saskatchewan

2,256,490

Rockwood

Manitoba

1,668,500

Frontenac

Ontario

1,507,770

Pittsburgh

Ontario

2,113,076

Westmorland

New Brunswick

1,550,000

Total

 

9,533,246

Prison farm employment

The following table shows how many offenders were employed by prison farms in 2009-2010.

Institution

Offenders Employed

Bowden

81

Frontenac

97

Pittsburgh

38

Riverbend

70

Rockwood

78

Westmorland

160

Total 524
Saving the farms

In an attempt to save prison farms, the National Farmers Union and partner organizations launched a campaign to:

  • Demonstrate their support for the prison farm program
  • Urge the federal government to reverse its decision and immediately halt the dismantling process
  • Revitalize and re-orient the program toward sustainable farming that will feed the inmates in the long term and train them to participate in the sustainable local food systems that will feed our communities in the future
  • Connect this issue with the need for the Government of Canada to carry out a comprehensive review of all policies on farming and food

Source: National Farmers Union