A veteran Liberal MP who once oversaw Canada’s federal prison system says at least one convict-run penitentiary farm among six shuttered by the Conservatives should be reopened and he’s pushing his caucus to do it. “I’m certainly encouraging it be done and I hope the government, when they do their financial analysis, see the worth of doing that,” Wayne Easter (inset) told me, in a recent interview. Easter was Public Safety critic leading up to the October 2015 election. He was solicitor general in the Chretien government in 2003, with responsibility for the Correctional Service. Easter said he planned to meet this week with the new Liberal Public Safety minister, Ralph Goodale.
In April this year, before the election, Easter provided a letter to a group in Kingston, Ontario pledging that a Liberal government would reopen the prison farm at Frontenac Institution, a minimum-security prison in Kingston. “It is our intent as a future Liberal government to support the re-opening of this facility,” the letter states. The closing of the pen farms, located in five provinces, was controversial, but attracted the most opposition in Kingston, where citizens, university professors, farmers and activists staged noisy protests outside the prison, even attempting to stop the removal of a dairy herd in the fall of 2010. Fifteen people were arrested because they blockaded the prison entrance. The Conservatives insisted that the pen farms were expensive – costing $4 million per year to operate – and didn’t provide meaningful job skills for prisoners. Critics said the tough physical labour that inmates performed and the bond with animals were potent rehabilitative tools.
The Frontenac dairy farm was “quite remarkable,” according to Easter, who toured it when it was still operating. He challenged the Conservatives on the closing of the pen farms.
“The prison farms were one of the greatest tools of rehabilitation for the inmate community and the [Frontenac] dairy farm in particular,” Easter said. He said he believes the farms at prisons in New Brunswick and in Manitoba may no longer be viable.
“I think in fairness to the new government, I think the one in Winnipeg and the one in Dorchester is probably beyond opening them as they were,” he said. “I would say the one that is most important and probably the only one that can be opened is the one in Kingston. Having said that, there would certainly have to be an analysis done in terms of what is left of that infrastructure.”
Prison farms were operated at:
* Pittsburgh Institution, Kingston, Ontario
* Frontenac Institution, Kingston, Ontario
* Westmorland Institution, New Brunswick
* Rockwood Institution, near Winnipeg.
* Riverbend Institution, near Prince Albert, Saskatchewan
* Bowden Institution, Alberta