Canada Might Finally Reopen Its Prison Farms

Inmates would milk cows and bale hay while doing time.
July 13, 2016, 5:00pm
A dairy cow. Image: James/Flickr

On Canada's prison farms, which date all the way back to the 1880s, inmates would do agricultural work while serving time: they'd feed and milk cows, bale hay, work on maintaining the barn, and plant crops, to name some of their tasks. Former inmates have said that working on the farm was therapeutic, and taught useful skills.

"When you milk a cow, you can't be in a hurry," Pat Kincaid, a former convict who worked on a prison farm near Kingston, Ontario, told VICE. "I learned patience."

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In 2010, amid angry protests, the Harper government—which was busy touting its "tough on crime" agenda—shut down Canada's prison farms, partly because only a fraction of inmates were going on to work in the dwindling agriculture sector after they left prison. They argued that it just wasn't good job training.

In the last fiscal year they were operational, 716 inmates were working on the farms, the Correctional Service of Canada told me. (Two were in Ontario, and one each in BC, Alberta, Saskatchewan, and New Brunswick.)

Now, some of them might finally reopen.

The Liberal government is running a public consultation, which goes until August 2, to gather opinions on whether it should start up the prison farms again. In mid-August, they'll be holding a public meeting about it in Kingston, where two of the institutions—Joyceville and Collins Bay Institutions—are based. Their prison farms are the two that the Liberals are considering reopening, at least for now.

There's a chance the meeting could get rowdy, which has happened in the past. Over the years, local farmers and activists have mounted passionate protests to save the farms: One, in 2010, saw multiple people arrested, and a donkey called Stormy brought in wearing a sign that said "Prison farm consultant," according to reports from the time.

Ever since the farms shut down, a co-operative near Kingston has been taking care of their cows, holding out hope that the animals could eventually be returned to the inmates' care. The Pen Farm Herd Co-Op, with over 180 members, initially purchased 23 dairy cows, and now cares for 32 of them (some had calves). Co-op members pitch in to pay for the cows' feed, and arrange their care. "These cows are friendly, they like interactions with people," farmer Jeff Peters, who's chairman of the co-op, told me. "That's why they were so good at healing the inmates."

Peters got active in trying to save the farms for a few different reasons. A big one was the worry that the government would sell off the valuable land where they were based. "Fifty or 60 years ago, [this land] was on the outskirts of the city," which has since enveloped it, he said. "It's a huge tract of land inside the city of Kingston. We think it's the largest urban farmland in North America." (The government didn't sell the land, but has been renting it out.)

Another was what Peters perceived as a slight towards farmers like himself. "They said the farms were wasting money, and not teaching meaningful skills," he said. "That resonated with me, growing up on a family farm. Farmers are well respected in the working world because of their ability to think outside the box, and get some work done."

It's been what Peters calls "seven long years" since the plan to shutter the farms was announced. "It's a lot of work to do," he told me. "But I just think back to what they said, and you want to prove them wrong."

As for the animals, "these cows are destined to go back," he said.