Growing, even behind bars

Prison farms are a necessary rehabilitative tool of the Canadian criminal justice system

Professor Bill Flanagan with Hope, the calf sold at auction.
Professor Bill Flanagan with Hope, the calf sold at auction.

Upon their return to campus this fall, Queen’s students may have noticed the local controversy surrounding the federal government’s recent decision to close all of Canada’s six prison farms.

At the core of the controversy is a clash of two competing views on the nature and purpose of Canada’s criminal justice system.

Those who support the prison farms value the rehabilitative role they play in providing inmates the opportunity to gain practical work experience and social skills that will prepare them for their release back into society.

In contrast, the Conservative government is determined to get “tough on crime” and it seems that working on a prison farm simply isn’t part of their ideology.

As the only law school in the country that operates a legal aid program providing assistance to prison inmates, the Faculty of Law has a keen interest in correctional justice matters.

I was curious to learn more about our prison farms and I attended a town hall meeting of the “Save our Prison Farms” coalition last December. At that meeting I discovered a diverse and dedicated group of farmers, correctional staff, aboriginal leaders, religious groups, students, seniors and other local residents — all of whom spoke passionately of the rehabilitative, sustainable and practical benefits of the prison farm program for inmates.

A few months later, I was able to visit the prison farm at the Frontenac Institution, a minimum-security prison farm in Kingston that produced dairy products and eggs. During my visit I witnessed a highly efficient operation run by staff and inmates, all of who impressed on me both the importance of the farm as a rehabilitative program, as well as the practical economic benefits of the facility.

The farm supplied dairy and eggs to 13 federal prisons in Ontario and Quebec, all of which will now have to be purchased at great expense to the government.

After my tour of the prison farm facility, I became actively involved in the coalition’s efforts to oppose and challenge the government’s decision to close the prison farms.

The coalition mounted an impressive campaign in Kingston to raise the profile of the issue and educate community members on this issue. In addition to our local efforts, the coalition also brought this fight to Ottawa, where I and other coalition members had the opportunity to testify before the Standing Committee on Public Safety and National Security. Unfortunately the government ignored us and — over the spirited objection of dozens of protesters — the farm at the Frontenac Institution was closed in August and the dairy herd was auctioned off.

I witnessed 24 of our protesters arrested in acts of civil disobedience as they attempted to block the trucks removing the herd.

Continuing our lively opposition, we raised almost overnight $31,000 to form a cooperative that purchased about 20 cows in the auction that followed their removal from the farm.

Local farmers will care for them until they can be returned to a re-established prison farm.

I am the proud owner of shares in this cooperative. One of our calves, aptly named Hope, was on campus last week in an effort to raise awareness about the ongoing fight to re-establish the prison farms.

Many Queen’s students had the opportunity meet Hope and learn about this important local social justice issue. Many others have volunteered to help the Coalition continue its efforts to reverse the government’s decision.

What rationale did the government offer for closing the farms? The government argued that it was closing the farms to save money.

We were told that the farms generated $7.5 million in revenue and cost $11.6 million to operate, for a loss of $4.1 million.

The government also argued that less that one per cent of inmates find work in the agriculture sector after being released, so the farms do not provide practical skills.

Yet the government’s own “tough on crime” agenda means that our prison population will explode in the next few years, at enormous cost to the Canadian taxpayer.

According to the parliamentary budget officer, the annual costs of correctional services will more than double by 2015-16, from $4.4 billion to $9.5 billion.

The government is hugely expanding what it spends on prisons even though crime rates have been declining for years and continue to decline.

This rigid pattern of placing ideology over evidence has become all too familiar to Canadians.

The government’s decision to scrap the mandatory long-form census is another example, a move that lead to the resignation of the Head of Statistics Canada, Dr. Munir Sheikh.

As a faculty member at Queen’s University, I was proud to see that Dr. Sheikh has joined the School of Policy Studies at Queen’s, as a distinguished fellow and adjunct professor.

The Liberal Party of Canada has also taken a strong stand in favour of restoring Canada’s prison farm program.

Mark Holland, Liberal Opposition Critic for Public Safety and National Security, visited Kingston in September to deliver the Liberal Party’s written commitment to restoring the prison farm program.

Along with the Liberal Party, I will continue to fight to restore our prison farms as an essential component of a balanced, humane, and rehabilitative criminal justice system in Canada.

Bill Flanagan is dean of the School of Law and a candidate in the Liberal nomination race for Kingston and the Islands

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