In an attempt to defend their decision to close Canada’s prison farm program, motives among Canada’s Conservative government have become quite curious
“Over the last five years, less than 1% of all offenders released into the community found work in the agricultural sector,” said Ross Toller, the Correctional Service of Canada’s (CSC) Regional Deputy Commission for Ontario.
On March 25, 2010, Toller was invited by Canada’s Standing Committee on Public Safety and National Security to defend CSC’s decision to close Canada’s over one-hundred year-old prison farm program. Since 1992, the farms have been part of CORCAN – a division of CSC that “provides employment and employability skills training to offenders incarcerated in federal penitentiaries”.
Up until recently, CORCAN operated farm programs at six institutions across the country. With inmates as employees, the facilities have managed productive dairy herds, egg production facilities, beef processing plants and mixed crops and offer inmates a wealth of experiences often found on farms in construction, welding, heavy machinery and computerized account management. Within facilities in Kingston, Ontario, the farms are even producing milk and eggs for consumption at penitentiaries throughout Ontario and Quebec, thereby demonstrating a unique approach in Canada of how institutions can feed themselves and lower costs. The farms are highly respected among inmates, prison workers and the local communities, and they play a critical role supporting local food system infrastructure. The Frontenac Institution in Kingston is likely the largest urban farm in the country.
With all the said benefits, it came as a shock when in February 2009, a Kingston newspaper discovered that the farms, which had already received some downsizing in previous years, were slated to be dismantled and the program shut down. This immediately mobilized an active campaign to save the farms with groups like the National Farmers Union and the Union of Solicitor General Employees taking the lead. Shock set in further for opponents to the closures when the then-Minister of Public Safety Peter Van Loan stated in April 2009; “We felt that that money could be more adequately redirected to programs where people would actually gain employable skills as virtually nobody who went through those prison farms ended up with employable skills because they were based on a model of how agriculture was done 50 years ago, when it was labour intensive, and not capital intensive, as it is today.”
Many farmers were outraged that the Canadian government would view labour-intensive farming as “no longer relevant”!
With the rise in interest in small-scale production both among farmers and the eating public, the statement is quite suggestive of how deeply out of touch the government is with this rapidly growing segment of the food system. Yet despite the awkward comment, the prison farms in question are, in fact, by all standards, quite modern. The dairy herd in Kingston happens to be one of the most productive herds in Ontario.
Fast-forward to today, the campaign was successful in rallying opposition MPs to invite this issue into House committees in late March 2010. The public safety and national security committee devoted the most attention to the matter with two full meetings where testimonies were heard from proponents and opponents of the closures.
First to speak on March 25, 2010 was CSC’s Ross Toller. After he issued the statement above, Liberal MP Mark Holland was quick to jump on what appeared to be a very hollow reason for closing the farms. Holland believed it to be irrelevant that only 1% of inmates going through the CORCAN programs found work in agriculture. On the ground evidence has instead demonstrated that many inmates who have gone through the farm program have indeed found work, just not necessarily in agriculture. When Holland requested from Toller that he share with the committee whether this was true, Toller indicated that no such statistics exist!
In a follow-up interview with Holland, he stated his frustration with Toller’s statements; “I was a little confused by the Corrections official’s inability to one, understand the question, because it’s a pretty straight-forward question and it’s one that you would have hoped they would have put some time in to, and two, it does say that they don’t want to answer because I think the answer would demonstrate how effective this program is.”
In addition to the lack of employability statistics, CSC also failed to present any analysis on the rehabilitative comparisons among CORCAN programs, nor any comparison of recidivism (reoffending) rates among programs.
With this decision being “based on anything but facts”, as Holland suggests, he speculates that there is much more at play than what CSC is presenting. He cites former Minister Van Loan’s passing comment in late-2009, that the now-available land could be used to construct “superprisons”.
While no formal confirmation of this has been announced, short-term projections are quite revealing. In the next two years, the Conservatives will have increased the correctional budget by 96%, its capital budget by 237%, and most of it slated for building new prisons and hiring more guards. A negligible and disproportionate increase will go towards rehabilitation. Crime prevention funding is also down 57% since the party assumed office.
On April 1, the committee successfully agreed upon a motion that requests that the Minister of Public Safety halt the closures of the prison farms until an independent third-party review is carried out. A response now awaits.
Jon Steinman is the producer/host of Deconstructing Dinner – heard on radio stations across Canada and available as a Podcast. To listen to audio episodes on this topic and updates on Canada’s prison farms, visit www.deconstructingdinner.ca