Com­mon sense kicks in, prison farms re­gain hope

Kingston Whig-Standard - - OPINION - ROBIN BARANYAI

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.”

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