There are the classic things everyone knows you learn in prison—how to make alcohol out of your toilet tank, how to turn someone's toothbrush into a tattoo gun—and then there are the less conventional skills you can pick up while doing time. I mean sure, you get a university degree, but did you know women inmates in California can also train to be firefighters?
In Canada, for more than a century, unlikely inmate pursuits included riding on tractors, milking cows and feeding chickens. Up until 2010, six institutions put convicts to work on government-run prison farms that fed inmates across the country.
Pat Kincaid was one such convict who mucked out cattle stalls at Frontenac prison farm in Kingston. He's been out and clean for seven years now, and credits the cows he met in lockup with teaching him to love and ask for help. Since the Liberal government is running a study right now that could see the return of behind-bars agriculture, VICE reached out to Pat to understand why he says farming in prison turned his life around.
VICE: Hi Pat. How did you end up in prison in the first place?
Pat Kincaid: I had a rough childhood. The lady that brought me into the world never wanted children, so I knew hate before anything. I was getting in all kinds of trouble as a kid, but never in court trouble until I was 17. After that I was in and out all the time, for the next 40 years. My trademark was break and enter, theft and robbery. The longest I was ever on the streets was 18 months, and the last six was because I was on the run.
How did you get started on the farm?
They wanted me to go in and clean out the stalls. Nobody thought I would last because of who I was and my record. From there I learned how to milk them. For four years I worked my way up. There was nothing about a cow I didn't want to know. They kept my mind out of jail, kept my mind off the street. When my time was done I was in charge of the cows that were pregnant.
What were your days like?
I would get up at four o'clock in the morning, lay around for a half hour, smoke a smoke. I'd have breakfast at quarter to five and was in the barn at 5:30 in the morning, setting up the milking machines. When my job was to take care of the cows that were pregnant I'd check on them, change all the bedding for those who just had cows, get some new hay in there. Then I'd check on the mothers-to-be, bring them out into the field and go back to help with the milkers. By that time it was about 11:30, time for a count. I'd go back inside the joint so they could count me, then I'd come back out. When one had a calf, I'd be there the rest of the afternoon taking care, making sure the mother could stand, that the calf could stand. I'd have to go in for supper, they would count me again at about four or five, then I'd get driven back to the barn to make sure the mother is staying with the calf. Sometimes they don't, right. Over two and a half years I never lost one calf—I kept them all. We'd always have 10 to 20 calves just born in the last month.
That's a lot of baby cows. Did they ever give you a hard time?
If I never left jail it would be for this reason. A cow had a calf right at lunch time and it wasn't breathing. There was no barn supervisor, no other inmates or guards around, nobody. And I'm telling you, I did everything for this calf—I scooped mucus out of his throat, threw him half over the stall to open his airways—every trick in the book. I was hollering for staff because I didn't want to lose a calf. Finally, when I was done I put him on the floor. I said I don't want to see nobody because I'm going to kill them. That's all I was thinking, that I'd kill the next person I see. Then I looked at my calf one more time, and my god, it started breathing. I never lost a calf.
Why do you think the cows left such a strong impression on you?
It was remarkable what these animals did to me. I grew up on the streets, where you don't ask nothing from nobody. With an animal you have to figure things out. I had to talk to the guards, to the barn staff, I had to ask for help. Before I knew it I didn't mind asking. When you milk a cow, you can't be in a hurry. One cow gives you a whole bag in two minutes, but the next cow it'll be 20 minutes later and still going. I learned patience, I learned not to care so much about missing a poker game. Cows taught me anger gives me nothing but trouble, and if I ask, I'll find a solution. I've been a free man for seven years now.
That's really sweet. What was it like leaving the cows?
When I got out, I joked that I should go rob a bank so they can throw me back in there. I said it jokingly, but I really don't know if I was or not. Then they turned the barn into a laundry factory. Inmates weren't learning job skills according to the government, 'cause we weren't coming out to be farmers. I clean floors for a trucking firm. So they closed the barn down, turned it into a place with washers and dryers. If that had happened a few years earlier, when I was still there, I would probably be dead or back in jail right now. That was my life up to then.
Do you think your experience was rare?
Working the barn isn't for everybody. Some inmates can't stand the smell of shit or hay or cows, or they think they're hard to milk and they didn't want to take the time to learn to milk 'em right. Some cows will lay right down on top of their food 'cause they don't want to be milked. Some guys would kick 'em. That's not right. Farming is about respect. A cow has to be milked twice a day. While a CEO of some company can take holidays and weekends, a farmer is his own boss but can't leave the farm. They're out in the field sunrise to sunset, and don't get Christmas off. To me it's a happy life.
Interview has been edited for clarity and style.
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