Prison farm program readying for relaunch in Ontario

The federal government is expected to give details today about when Canada’s prison farm program will begin operating again after being shuttered in 2010.

Cows and goats have already returned to prisons in Joyceville and Collins Bay, Ont., which are both located in and around the Kingston area. Inmates have been involved in the work to get the farms back in order, but they have not begun actually farming. 

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

Before the six federal prison farms across the country were shuttered, some 300 inmates participated in the program, typically providing food including milk and eggs for the penitentiaries as well as community food banks. 

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

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)

In 2006, the Conservative government commissioned a study into the viability of the CORCAN agribusiness, which 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 Conservative government decided in 2009 to end the program.

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. 

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

Goats and cattle began arriving at the institutions this spring.

In Collins Bay, the half-dozen young Holsteins are descendants of the cows removed from the farm in 2009.

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.”

Karen McCrimmion, parliamentary secretary to the Minister of Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness, is expected to speak around 11 a.m. ET today to offer details about when the programs will be operational.