Ontario prison farms making a comeback

Two federal prison farms in the Kingston, Ont., area are getting up and running again after the former Conservative government shelved the program in 2010.

In the 2018 budget, the Liberal government included $4.3 million to restore farms at the Joyceville and Collins Bay Institutions, where minimum-security inmates will be allowed to participate in farm programs.

To prepare for re-opening, beef cows and goats returned to Joyceville Institution in May, and six dairy cows were more recently placed at Collins Bay Institution — descendants of the cows removed from the farm in 2009. Goats are expected to arrive at Collins Bay in 2020.

Karen McCrimmon, parliamentary secretary to the Minister of Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness, said in a news conference at Collins Bay Thursday morning that while some work has been completed, more needs to be done.

Early days

“We are still only at the first step of this renewal process,” she said. “Crops were planted, farmland has been repaired, equipment and supplies were purchased throughout 2018. Also, renovation work is well underway in preparation for getting dairy operations up and running.”

A dairy cow barn is expected in 2020, and a dairy goat barn is expected in 2021, she said.

So far there are about 20 jobs between both institutions, and there will be about 60 positions available once operations are fully underway, McCrimmon said.

Other things being done on the farms include beekeeping and a field devoted to organic crop production, and there are plans to plant flowers and trees as well. Full implementation is expected in the coming years.

‘Satisfying to see’

“It’s very satisfying to see that it’s been restored,” said Dianne Dowling, a member of the National Farmers Union and a founding member of the Save our Prison Farms campaign, which fought for years to see the program restored.

Jeff Peters and Olivia Groenewegen held on to a donkey outside the Correctional Service Canada regional headquarters in Kingston, Ont., in 2010 as members of Save Our Prison Farms held a blockade in front of the headquarters. (Lars Hagberg/Canadian Press)

Prior to its closure, hundreds of inmates participated in the program at six institutions across Canada, where they typically provided food including milk and eggs for penitentiaries as well as community food banks. 

Prison farms in Canada had been operating for more than a century. Over the years, the system shifted from forced labour to a rehabilitation program run by CORCAN, a Correctional Service of Canada program that provides inmates with employment experience and skills.

In 2006, the Conservative government commissioned a study into the viability of the CORCAN agribusiness that recommended phasing out the program in favour of operations offering a better return, like manufacturing.

The 2008 Correctional Employment Strategy report stated: “There is a definite need to become more responsive to changes in the labour market … and aligning the type of training and skills offered with economic demand.”

The program ended in 2010.

Battle over closure

During parliamentary hearings in 2010, prisoner advocates and community organizers pushed against the closure, pointing to research suggesting the programs bolstered work confidence, lowered recidivism, and offered inmates the therapeutic opportunity that comes with caring for animals.

In August 2010, protesters at Collins Bay tried to stop the trucks from hauling away the animals to auction, leading to a number of arrests.  

For a decade, the Save Our Prison Farms campaign held regular vigils at the gates of the shuttered farm at Collins Bay, and lobbied the new Liberal government to reinstate the program. 

Dowling, who now sits on the government advisory committee steering the renewal of the program, said inmates at Joyceville will get to work with dairy cows and dairy goats.

Both the Joyceville and Collins Bay programs will include land management, horticulture and crop production. 

“We’re moving along towards having a substantial program there for inmates to gain work skills and also to benefit from the rehabilitation or therapeutic aspects of farming.”

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