The Conservative government barely blinked in response to a 100-page parliamentary report that condemns the decision to close prison farms and recommends they be resurrected. “We could not disagree more with the misguided priorities of the Ignatieff Liberals and their coalition partners,” Public Safety Minister Vic Toews states, in an e-mailed response to my request for comment.
A report tabled in Parliament by the Public Safety committee, after a year of research as far afield as Norway and the United Kingdom, concludes that the prison farms were “excellent rehabilitation” tools that should immediately be restored. The farms are the focus of one of 71 recommendations in the document, which addresses mental health and addictions of inmates in the federal prison system.
The study that led to the report was launched after the death of Ashley Smith, a 19-year-old woman who died in a federal women’s prison in Kitchener in 2007. She had a history of serious mental health problems.
The tough-on-crime Tories have nearly completed the shuttering of six penitentiary farms, including two in Kingston. They portray efforts to save the farms, which employed 300 convicts, as a left-leaning campaign to coddle criminals and ignore victims.
“Stephen Harper’s Conservative priorities keep law-abiding Canadian families safe in their homes, streets and communities,” states the response from Toews’ office. “And Conservative priorities ensure victims whose lives have been damaged physically, financially and even emotionally by criminals – receive the support and respect that they deserve. Meanwhile, the Opposition and its coalition partners continue to advocate for criminals’ rights, (and) in doing so, they have shown they put the priorities of criminals ahead of the priorities of law-abiding Canadians.”
Dianne Dowling, a Kingston farmer who spearheaded efforts to save the prison farms, scoffs at the response.
“They like to spin that if you’re interested in rehabilitation, you’re soft on criminals,” she said.
The farms were therapeutic for inmates, she insists, and helped prevent them from committing more crimes when released.
“The Conservative claim that they’re interested in public safety is a joke because they want to spend billions of dollars putting more people in jail,” Dowling said.
The government says it closed the farms because they don’t teach relevant employment skills and they were costing $4 million a year. The federal prison system now costs roughly $2.2 billion to operate.
The parliamentary report, which represents the opinions of Opposition members on the committee, notes that animal therapy programs have proved effective behind bars.
“A literature review conducted by CSC concludes that animal therapy programs not only help participants by improving their behaviour and learning about discipline, as well as their sense of co-operation and respect for others; they also help staff of correctional institutions since the presence of animals makes the atmosphere more relaxed and encourages communication among inmates,” the report states.
This report concludes that participating inmates learn skills that would serve them well in jobs after release and would reduce re-offending.
“For this reason, the committee has difficulty understanding why CSC decided to terminate the prison farm program at penitentiaries by March 31, 2011,” the report states.
Dowling said she’s heartened to see the issue is still being championed in Ottawa. She believes that MPs must use their parliamentary privilege to visit prisons where farms were closed and expose the failure of Correctional Service Canada to replace the operations with meaningful inmate work programs.
“Show us what they’re doing that’s better than the prison farm program,” she said.
Corrections has never explained what programs would replace the farm jobs.
Dowling said a recent claim that Frontenac inmates would repair military vehicles proved misleading. She said that work is being done by inmates at nearby Collins Bay Institution.
Eleven people arrested in August last year while protesting the closing of the Frontenac prison farm are yet to face trials on charges of mischief. Thirteen others arrested during the two-day prison blockade, a failed bid to stop the removal of cattle, accepted prosecution offers to do community service and make small charitable donations. Charges against them were dropped in exchange.
Conservative members of the Public Safety Committee wrote a short, dissenting report, recommending that the Correctional Service consider new tactics to stop drug use in prisons; continue implementing a comprehensive new mental health strategy and continue to modernize old penitentiaries.
Here’s the complete, 110-page report tabled by the Public Safety committee in December 2010: