It’s the right time to revisit value of prison farms

In a questionable move back in 2010, the Conservative government closed down six prison farms located at Canadian minimum-security facilities.

Despite appeals not to do so by farm groups, social action networks, churches and the John Howard Society, the prison farms were closed and the livestock sold off (though the animals can be reacquired).

The government’s argument at the time was that the farms offered no real-work skills, that they didn’t train prisoners for modern farming and the annual $4 million cost to run them would be better spent elsewhere.

The Conservatives said most prisoners involved in the program did not go into agricultural once they were released. There are issues with this. Most jobs would be located in rural areas, meaning fewer support programs for prisoners and lower levels of security. Still some farmers have employed workers with criminal records.

With only six farms and 300 prison farmers, the six facilities — in Ontario, Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta — were indeed small potatoes, but not to the prisoners involved, nor to the people in whose communities prison farms operated.

The Liberals are now considering a modest proposal to re-open two of the farms near Kingston, Ontario. A report on the issue is expected shortly.

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As columnist Kelsey Johnson reported, public input on the idea drew more than 6,000 responses, with the vast majority in favour of reestablishing the operations.

In 2009, when the Conservatives first announced the closures, John Edwards, who was commissioner of Corrections Services of Canada from 1993 to 1996, said the farms “provide value for money, definitely,” adding, “I think it is a wrong-headed and short-sighted decision to close them down.”

There is actually very little data on whether prison farms pay for themselves, whether prisoners go into agriculture upon release, or whether the rehabilitative or therapeutic benefits are valid, according to observations made in 2009 by University of Toronto assistant professor of sociology Phillip Goodman, who looked at the farm closure debate.

Still, it is a worthwhile endeavour to restart the two farms and evaluate their effectiveness with empirical data, rather than anecdotal evidence or ideological objectives.

Some things appeal to common sense. While the techniques used at prison farms may not be the same as those used on commercial operations, allowing federal prisoners — whose crimes are, by nature, fairly serious — to reap the fruits of their labour and gain an appreciation for patience, persistence, resourcefulness and responsibility, is a good foundation for those who will seek productive lifestyles upon their release.

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Food from prison farms is used in prison menus, and some goes to local community efforts such as food banks, all of which serves to offset some of the costs. (Prison farms supplied about $2 million in produce to Canada’s penitentiaries.)

There is something to be said for the accomplishment of prisoners who are able to put food on the table of their fellow inmates, but how do you measure the value of such an effort?

And as for rehabilitation, among the goals of the federal programs are living skills, violence prevention and employment readiness. Whatever the technical skills prison farmers learn, the ethic they embrace while farming can be helpful in these areas.

When the farms closed, the Liberals promised to rejuvenate the project. Now is their chance.

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Bruce Dyck, Barb Glen, Brian MacLeod, D’Arce McMillan and Michael Raine collaborate in the writing of Western Producer editorials.