For the past two months, the Justin Trudeau government — under the watchful eye of Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale — have been conducting an online feasibility study on whether to reopen the two Kingston area prison farms: Collins Bay (home of the Frontenac farm) and Joyceville.
More than 6,000 submissions have been put forward, including about 50 forms from inmates at Kingston prisons who were given documents to fill out by hand because they lacked online access.
Ninety-four percent of applicants felt an agriculture-based rehabilitation program was an effective way to help inmates transition back into society.
Kingstonians are still tenaciously involved in the fight to reopen the prison farms. A group of residents have held a vigil for the farms every Monday since they were shut down.
It was standing room only at the lone public meeting. Many in the room, including the region’s Conservative candidate in last fall’s election, were in “Save our Prison Farms” T-shirts. More than a few held a picture of one of the 22 prison cows who have been temporarily relocated to dairy farms in the area until they can be resold to the farm.
Organizers were clearly taken aback by the turnout, with independent agriculture consultant Myles Frost scrambling to ensure everyone who wanted to speak had a chance.
Not one person who went to the microphone was opposed to re-opening the prison farms.
More than a few said they felt insulted by the previous Conservative government’s argument that the farms were closed because they did not provide meaningful skills or lead to employment in agriculture. The farms were closed by the former federal Conservative government.
“The reason given for the closure — that agriculture did not provide any meaningful skills — this was an insult to staff, but even a greater insult to every Canadian farmer,” Ron Amey, who worked at the Frontenac farm as a herdsman and then farm manager, told Goodale.
“The intent of the prison farm was never to turn inmates into farmers,” he said.
Still, reopening the farms comes with challenges.
Since the closure some of the barns and processing facilities have been turned into storage and laundry facilities.
Others, like the greenhouses at Joyceville, are in disrepair, while some barns will need updating to meet industry requirements for enhanced cages or for cage free systems for laying hens. Some of the land has also been rented out to farmers on yearly leases.
Any money for upgrades, Goodale said, will likely need to wait for the Liberal’s next budget.
Then there’s the employment question. While there is no question that skills learned on a farm — like empathy, patience, punctuality and ingenuity — can be applied to jobs outside agriculture, Canadian employers also need to accept that some of those who graduate from these programs will want to work in agriculture upon their release.
Less than two percent of Canadian inmates were working in agriculture when the farms were closed, a statistic that was repeatedly raised by the Conservatives as one reason for closing the farm.
It’s a delicate balance, one the industry and federal officials would be wise to start discussing now. Agriculture needs workers, inmates need viable employment upon release, but farms, unlike a construction site or warehouse, are also people’s homes, often in remote areas. That raises sensitivities, including concerns about personal and community safety.
Former inmate Pat Kincaid, who refers to the Frontenac dairy farm as “the miracle farm”, knows how hard it can be to find work in agriculture after being released from prison.
Farmers, he told Goodale, have told him he’s too old or not strong enough to work in agriculture. Attempts to work as a veterinary assistant, where folks told him the courses would be a “waste of money” were also unsuccessful because he was unlikely to get work.
He now cleans toilets for a living, which Kincaid told Goodale he prefers over his old life of crime.
“I wouldn’t trade a day of my current life for a week of my old life,” he said, his voice breaking with emotion. “Maybe, if you bring the farms back, people like me will stand a chance of rehabilitation.”