Ottawa might reopen prison farms shut down by the Harper government

The 2010 closure of the country’s prison farms by the then-Conservative government was highly controversial

Pat Kincaid credits the dairy cows on a now-shuttered prison farm in Ontario with teaching him the skills he needed to break a life-long cycle of crime and incarceration.

The 65-year-old Kingston, Ont., resident, who has spent a total of 35 years behind bars for assaults, thefts and other property crimes, hopes other inmates get the chance to benefit from a program the federal Liberal government is now considering reopening.

“There’s not a program in jail, even today, that can teach those skills that the cows have taught me by working with them,” said Kincaid, who’s been out of prison for seven years.

“The cows taught me patience and how to control my anger, and how to deal with being upset…I know it helped other inmates too.”

The 2010 closure of the country’s prison farms by the then-Conservative government – six in total operating at institutions in New Brunswick, Ontario, Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta – was highly controversial.

Opponents argued the decision was made without properly considering the essential skills the farms taught the participating inmates. There was also criticism that local community members had not been adequately consulted.

The Liberal government is now studying the possibility of reopening the farms – starting with two in the Kingston area, and is asking Canadians to weigh in on the issue through an online survey.

A town hall is also planned in Kingston at a yet-to-be-determined date, to allow local residents and other stakeholders to share their thoughts.

“If they could save another guy like me, they should keep that barn open,” Kincaid said of the dairy farm where he once cleaned stalls, milked cows and helped birth calves. “It made my time go quick. I didn’t even realize I was doing time when I was in the barn.”

Inmates who worked on the farms – which had operated in Canada since the 1880s – were employed in farm maintenance, feeding cattle, operating milking machinery, cleaning barns, raking and bailing hay, plowing and harvesting corn, operating grain mills and trucks, tilling the land and planting crops, Correctional Services Canada said in an email to The Canadian Press.

In the 2009-2010 fiscal year, 716 inmates were employed in the prison farm program, Corrections said.

The decision to shutter the farms drew protests, particularly in Kingston, where a farm with a large dairy herd and several thousand hens, and another with an abattoir were closed.

A group of farmers and others protesting the closures banded together and bought some of the prison farm cattle auctioned off by the federal government. The cows, and the calves they’ve since borne, are now hosted at farms in the area.

“We’re eager to have them taken back to prison and start the heard back up again,” said Jeff Peters, chairman of the Pen Farm Herd Co-op. “The animals are what they call bred for docility, they’re friendly, they won’t kick you. And that’s what the inmates needed.”

In addition to helping the inmates develop a good work ethic, the farms produced food that was used to feed the prison population as well as supply local food banks, and also helped the local economy as it generated the need for fertilizer, equipment and other supplies, said Peters.

“It was a real economic engine for the farm community,” he said. “There’s so many reasons why the farms were a good idea.”

The land the Kingston prison farms sat on is now rented out to local farmers by the federal government.

Peters and his colleagues have ideas for how to modernize any reopened farms, with suggestions of green energy use and artisan cheese production.

But before that happens, while happy the government is conducting consultations, Peters worries many people – like Kincaid – whose input is important, may not have access to a computer to take the online survey, or would prefer mailing in a letter instead.

“Consultation is great, we just want to be still part of it,” he said. “The land is there, and we’re determined to restore the prison farm.”

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