New prisons boss can do one small thing to send big signal

thumb_goodaleRalph Goodale (inset), the Saskatchewan farm boy now in charge of Canada’s federal prison system, could swiftly do one small thing that would send a big signal that the Harper legacy of punitive correctional policies will be dismantled. Goodale should move quickly to restore convict-operated farms at penitentiaries across the country. Six pen farms in five provinces were shuttered by the Conservative government in 2010, for no justifiably good reason. Really, Goodale may have no choice. A vocal and remarkably persistent lobby group based in Ontario has a signed promise (read it after the jump) from the Liberals, obtained before the October federal election, to reopen one of the prison farms. It isn’t much of a stretch to conclude that if reopening one is a good idea, it’s worth reopening all of them.

If Goodale needs justification to reopen the pen farms fast, he can point to a parliamentary committee report tabled in December 2010 that concluded that the farms were an “excellent rehabilitation” tool that should immediately be restored.

Even the prison service backed the recommendation to keep them open.

“A literature review conducted by [Correctional Service of Canada] 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 2010 report noted. “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 Conservatives scoffed at the Opposition-authored report, dismissing it as a misguided lefty campaign to coddle criminals and ignore victims. Then-public safety minister Vic Toews ignored the evidence of his own department that the pen farms did exactly what the correctional system was supposed to do – help prepare prisoners to be law-abiding citizens after release and, in the process, keep communities safer. Corrections Canada initially explained the closing of the pen farms as necessary because they didn’t provide “relevant and practical” employment skills. Critics pointed out that the argument was akin to suggesting that farming is irrelevant in Canada. I expect that Goodale, who was raised on a family farm near Wilcox, Saskatchewan – and once served as agriculture minister in a previous Liberal government – does not share this view.

Protesters trying to block the removal of dairy cattle from the Frontenac Institution farm in Kingston, Ontario, in August 2010 are arrested by police (photo courtesy Alec Ross)
Protesters trying to block the removal of dairy cattle from the Frontenac Institution farm in Kingston, Ontario, in August 2010 are arrested by police (photo courtesy Alec Ross)

The feds seemed unprepared for angry protests that the pen farm closings sparked in Kingston, Ontario, where demonstrators blockaded the entrance to minimum-security Frontenac Institution in a bid to prevent trucks from removing the prison farm’s dairy cattle. Police hauled off protestors and the cattle were trucked away. Two dozen people were arrested and charged, including a 14-year-old girl and an 87-year-old woman. The protesters vowed to keep up the fight against the closings. They have held a vigil outside the prison every week for the past five years.

When the dissent first erupted in 2010, the Conservative government offered a new, preposterous argument that the pen farms had to be closed because they were money losers, costing taxpayers $4 million yearly. Toews never explained publicly why, following this absurd logic to its conclusion, the entire penitentiary system, a money-losing operation that costs taxpayers more than $2.3 billion yearly, wasn’t a target of closure.

Apart from the operational rationale to restore the pen farms, there’s political capital at stake for the Liberals, who campaigned on the slogan: “Real Change.” After nearly a decade of punitive and regressive correctional policies implemented by the tough-on-crime Tories, Canada’s prison system is more violent, less humane, and, importantly, less effective, if we believe the objective is keeping communities safe. Goodale can, with this one small measure, make clear that the Grits will preside over a more humane and more effective system. He can say: ‘It’s still punishment, but smart punishment with an eye to rehabilitation and the safety of our communities.’

Goodale also can reopen the penitentiary farms because he knows how to get it done and, if Justin Trudeau is to be believed, because cabinet ministers are being given wide latitude and autonomy. Goodale is a veteran MP, first elected in 1974, who has held key cabinet portfolios, including finance. He knows how the bureaucracy works and which levers to pull to engage the machinery. Goodale could easily get the process started to reopen some or all of the pen farms. He may want to do it before there’s significant public pressure to do so.

Diane Dowling, the president of the National Farmers Union local in Kingston, Ontario, one of the key figures in the 2010 Save Our Prison Farms movement, told me, before the cabinet announcement, that the group will contact the minister.

“We will be pressing the government to act on their commitment,” Dowling said.

Dowling said a committee of local farmers worked with Kingston’s former Liberal MP, Ted Hsu, to draft a business plan for a revived pen farm at Frontenac institution with a herd of 50 cows and an artisan cheese factory. Before the Tory axe fell, there were also pen farms at Joyceville Institution in Ontario, Bowden Institution in Alberta, Riverbend Institution, near Prince Albert, Sask., Rockwood Institution, near Winnipeg, Man., and at Westmorland Institution in New Brunswick.

The Kingston-area activists secured a signed letter from Liberal MP Wayne Easter (who was re-elected on Oct. 19, 2015), the former Liberal Public Safety critic, who committed to reopening the Frontenac Institution prison farm.

“It is our intent as a future Liberal Government to support the re-opening of this facility,” Easter wrote, in the letter, dated April 1, 2015. “Proven human rehabilitation paired with the net benefit of a sustainable food source for the prison is indisputable.”

Here’s the April 1 letter signed by Wayne Easter:



Here’s my story from Feb. 24, 2009, published in the Kingston Whig-Standard newspaper that broke the news of the impending pen farm closings:

Union and farm leaders yesterday condemned a decision to close six prison farms – including two in Kingston.

“Our six Corcan farms are going to be gradually phased out … over a period of two years, starting immediately,” Christa McGregor, speaking in Ottawa for the Correctional Service of Canada, said yesterday.

Corcan is the prison service’s manufacturing arm.

McGregor said the decision follows a strategic review done last year to ensure that spending is focused in areas where it’s most needed.

“It was decided that this was one of the programs that’s possibly not meeting the needs of offenders,” she said. “We recognize the need to provide offenders with marketable employment skills for today’s employment realities, so we will be looking at developing alternative training that will provide more relevant and practical employability skills.”

The farms employ 300 inmates across the country. McGregor couldn’t provide any details about what kinds of inmate training would take the place of agricultural work or how swiftly it would be created.

“It’s very early right now,” she said.

McGregor said no decisions have been made about the future of the farm properties.

The decision to close the prison farms “absolutely makes no sense,” said John Edmunds, national president of the Union of Solicitor General Employees.

Members of his union supervise inmates in the farm operations.

“Does this mean the Harper government doesn’t believe in farming, the cornerstone of our country?” wondered Edmunds.

“The government’s giving orders to shut down the farm annexes across Canada that are in federal corrections, saying that it’s not a good trade now, I guess, it’s not meaningful employment.

“It’s a joke.”

McGregor defends the decision.

“[Inmates] do gain farming skills from this program and they also gain employability skills such as responsibility, teamwork, punctuality, but it’s believed that relatively few offenders gain work in this area and we want to be able to provide programs to inmates that reflect the realities of the employment world, the current needs in the labour market,” she said.

Edmunds disagreed.

“This is just a slap in the face to farmers,” he said, rejecting the notion that the farm work does not teach valuable skills.

“It’s an awesome training ground,” he said. “It teaches people good work ethics.

“You have to be responsible working on a farm [because] you’re not just responsible for yourself, you’re responsible for livestock.”

Andrea Cumpson, an Inverary farmer and president of the local chapter of the National Farmers Union, was saddened by the news.

“It’s a huge loss, certainly disheartening to think this is where we’re going as a community at a time when there’s awareness of eating locally and supporting local farms,” Cumpson said.

She said the Frontenac Institution farm, a 455-hectare complex, sits on the some of the best agricultural land in Frontenac County.

“We find it quite upsetting that agriculture is undervalued,” she said. “It’s hard to understand where some of these decisions are coming from.”

She noted that the security of Canada’s food supply and control over production are vital and are issues where government is expected to lead by example.

This decision “doesn’t make sense,” she said.

Edmunds said he doesn’t blame the commissioner of Corrections. He believes the decision is an edict from the Conservative government, which accepted the findings of a private task force it commissioned two years ago to review the prison system.

The report was critical of current inmate training programs.

“There is a need to move from employing large numbers of offenders in general maintenance jobs to providing more meaningful skills development to prepare the offender for employment upon release,” the report stated.

It did not specifically call for the elimination of agricultural training programs.

The 2007 task force report concluded Corrections Canada could pocket $2 million from the sale of farmland in Ontario, part of a plan to create super prison complexes, including a facility to be built on the grounds of Millhaven Institution with 2,200 cells, roughly the size of five prisons.

The report suggests closing and consolidating a number of aging prisons.

Pittsburgh Institution, home to one of the farm operations, was identified as one prison that would close. It opened in 1963 as the Joyceville farm annex.

Bruce Wallace, who has operated an abattoir at Pittsburgh Institution for 14 years, was told last week that the prison farm will close, meaning he’ll likely have to move his operation.

“That’s all we heard,” said Wallace, who doesn’t know when he will have to relocate his operation, Wallace Beef.

Wallace, a private businessman who runs the operation in a novel relationship with Corrections, employs 10 Pittsburgh prisoners full time. They are paid by Corrections. Wallace employs another five full-time workers he pays who are not inmates.

Inmates who work in the abattoir gain valuable skills.

“I’ve had some [prisoners] leave here and get into this business, whether a packing plant or abattoir,” he said. “It’s not only that they’re given a job, [it’s] creating a work ethic.”

If Wallace Beef is disrupted or forced to close, it will have a ripple effect locally.

All of the roughly 50 cattle processed each week come from area farms.

The meat is sold locally to restaurants, butcher shops and to Corrections.

The prison service buys some of the beef for its kitchens at six area prisons.

Frontenac Institution’s farm opened in 1962 as the Collins Bay farm annex. It was renamed Frontenac Institution in 1975.

It was the second of six farm camps opened across the country.

Cumpson said it is a sizable tract of prime farm land within city limits, exactly the kind of property that should be maintained for agricultural use.

“It’s really important that land be protected … we need to be able to feed ourselves,” she said.

She rejects the notion that farm jobs don’t teach prisoners valuable skills.

“That doesn’t make sense to me,” she said.

Giving inmates usable job skills is vital to keeping them out of prison in future.

Studies done by Corrections show a strong correlation between recidivism and unemployability.

A 10-year review of newly admitted male offenders, beginning in 1995, showed that 65% of the prisoners were unemployed at the time of arrest. For men under age 25, joblessness is higher, at 77%.

McGregor said senior Corrections officials from across Canada are meeting in Ottawa today to discuss the phase-out plan for the prison farms.

– – –

Prison farms to be closed

* Pittsburgh Institution, Kingston

* Frontenac Institution, Kingston

* Westmorland Institution, New Brunswick

* Rockwood Institution, near Winnipeg.

* Riverbend Institution, near Prince Albert, Sask.

* Bowden Institution, Alta.

» All of Cancrime’s coverage of the pen farm issue

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