News | Prison farms to be phased out

Activists fight for 130-year-old institution, saying it provides a good environment and fresh produce for prisoners

Canadian artists, academics, and activists gathered for a concert in Kingston last Saturday to oppose the closure of prison farms across the country. This action was initiated by the Canadian Musicians Support Prison Farms (CMSPF) campaign.

In 2008, the federal government initiated a strategic review of Corrections Service Canada, concluding that prison farming was outdated and that the program would come to an end by March of next year.

Prison farms have been operating in Canada since the 1880s, providing inmates with experience in the agricultural industry and the opportunity to learn hands-on skills. At present, six farms employ 300 inmates at minimum-security prisons in Ontario, Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta, and New Brunswick. Produce from these farms is used within the prisons and supplied to nearby correctional facilities.

“I think everyone in Canada needs to be aware of [the situation surrounding the prison farms], so that at least people can have a clear idea of what’s going on as opposed to just finding out after the fact. So hopefully this is one step [in that direction],” said Luther Wright, a musician who joined the campaign on Saturday.

Conservative MP Vic Toews, recently appointed minister of public safety, issued a statement discussing the phasing out of the prison farming program.

“We would better serve prisoners (and society) by having training focus on skills that lead to actual jobs in the community,” said Toews. “Very few inmates ultimately find jobs in the agriculture sector, despite time spent on prison farms and the significant cost invested [$4 million annually] to operate these farms.”

The statement prompted public outcry from local organizations, politicians, and the CMSPF.

Action is being taken by many groups to engage the Conservative government and raise awareness among the Canadian public of the value of prison farms. Plans for similar concerts in Ottawa and Toronto are being considered after Saturday’s concert.

“We know we’re not teaching them to be farmers. We’ve never for 50 years taught these guys to be farmers. It’s the work ethics–that’s what we’ve tried to instill in these fellas,” explained a farm manager, who wished to remain anonymous.

“[The farm system] evaluates these guys, because a lot of them are going to get out soon, so we work with the psychologists and parole officers and case managers, so if a guy is doing a good job then the chances of him getting out on the streets and staying out is a lot better,” he added.

Many others – notably the Union of Solicitor General Employees (USGE) – have welcomed the rehabilitative nature of prison farms. The USGE represents the staff that work with inmates on farms, and while its members will be taken care of after farm closures occur, the group is actively campaigning to prevent these closures.

“You can see [that the inmates] love the work that they’re doing, they love the interaction with each other, with their supervisors, and they have a real pride when they talk about what goes on [at] the farm. Not to put down the other programs, but making a hutch or bookcase doesn’t give you the same warm feeling inside as working with an animal,” said Dominique Vidmar, communication officer for USGE.

Andrew McCann, volunteer coordinator for Urban Agriculture Kingston, commented on the importance of prison farms as a local food source for inmates and the surrounding community.

“This is about communities feeding themselves. If prisoners can feed themselves and have the tools to feed themselves, that’s a good thing.” McCann said. “That we’re still focusing on industrial export-based farming and food is really short-sighted in terms of where the world and our country are going.

“If students put [these] pieces together then they would realize that there’s a lot at stake here in ending these prisoners’ ability to feed themselves.”