Common sense kicks in, prison farms regain hope
There’s a pleasing sense of closure when a narrative comes full circle. So there is no small satisfaction in the appointment of prison farm activist Jeff Peters — jailed three times for protesting the closure of Canada’s penitentiary farms — to an advisory panel exploring how to reopen prison farms at Joyceville and Collins Bay.
Peters is a Kingston-area farmer and chair of the Pen Farm Herd Co-op. The group was formed to preserve a hundred-year-old herd of prize dairy cattle removed from the prison farm at Frontenac institution, now part of Collins Bay.
Canada’s prison farm system earned widespread respect as a model for rehabilitation. In addition to the therapeutic benefits of working with animals, inmates developed important life skills — things like conflict resolution and asking for help. Canada’s six prison farms also supplied federal penitentiaries with annual produce valued at nearly $2 million: prisoners feeding prisoners.
But the Conservative government had a different vision for penitentiaries. Former public safety minister Vic Toews dismantled the program, arguing it didn’t prepare inmates for meaningful employment.
The statement lit a fire under Peters. Protesters staged a two-day blockade in August 2010 to stop transports from removing the cattle, hoping to bring the government to the negotiating table. Instead, 24 people were arrested, including an 87-year-old grandmother.
“Farmers don’t put their feet up very much,” Peters says of jail. “It’s not very comfortable in there, but you sure have time to think things over.”
The next morning, during bail hearings, supporters opened their wallets and the co-op was born. The group managed to buy 23 of the Pen Farm cattle at auction. Their goal was to sell the herd back when a new government restored the prison farm program. It turned out to be a long wait — through two federal elections.
“After seven years it’s hard to stay patient,” Peters admits. Public consultations generated an avalanche of support, with over 6,000 responses from across the country. He sees the appointment of the advisory panel as a commitment to finally moving forward. The panel will work with CORCAN, the employment training arm of Correctional Service Canada.
Panel members reflect broad expertise in livestock farming and prisoner rehabilitation. Tellingly, several are vocal prison farm supporters. One is Dianne Dowling, an organic dairy farmer and head of Save Our Prison Farms. She sees many opportunities for a renewed prison farm system, including capitalizing on the demand for smallscale artisanal cheese. “Rather than going back to what we in the business call fluid milk, making the milk into cheese would be a good skilled trades option, and also would make the product less perishable.”
She says the former administration moved quickly to rip out stables and processing equipment, but notes there may be an upside. “More dairy farms are moving to loose housing,” she observes, and away from tie stalls; starting from scratch leaves all options open.
Like Peters, Dowling is adamant the Pen Farm herd is integral to the solution. “The particular benefit of dairying is the inmates are working closely with the animals every day.”
With some cows lost and new ones calved, the herd currently sits at about 32 head. They get a lot of visitors seeking their namesakes.
“We’ve named a lot of the animals after the people who got arrested,” Peters explains. “Especially the girls.”
“It feels like a long slow climb up a ladder back to where we were before,” Dowling remarks. Asked if she feels hopeful at the government’s new direction, she replies: “We’ve always been hopeful. We wouldn’t have carried on without hoping that common sense would kick in.”