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MONTREAL—The movement to save prison farms has intensified in recent months as increasing numbers of Canadians have voiced concern about the Conservative government’s overarching plans for the federal prison system.
Twenty-four people were arrested during protests on August 8 and 9 outside the Frontenac Institution in Kingston—one of the six prison farms across the country that the Conservative government has slated for closure. Correctional Services Canada (CSC) was attempting to transport Frontenac’s dairy herd out of the facility when protesters formed a human barricade to prevent livestock trucks from passing onto the prison grounds.
Police attempted to break the blockade, periodically grabbing and detaining protesters, but they remained numerically outmatched.
“Sunday was a major victory for the campaign,” said Andrew McCann, a member of Urban Agriculture Kingston and one of those arrested. “Over 500 people held the blockade for two hours. They started to drag old women and young women away to intimidate people, but the line just grew.”
By the next morning, an estimated 150–200 Ontario Provincial Police officers had been called in. Several more arrests were made and the protest was eventually broken up. McCann stated that he and the other 23 defendants plan to plead not guilty at their first court date on September 14, 2010.
The farms employed about 300 inmates, and their produce fed inmates throughout the neighbouring CSC institutions, while surplus was typically donated to food banks. The prison farms program has existed in Canada for well over a century.
In recent months a groundswell of support for the farms has spread—from environmental groups to prison activists and former inmates, to the National Farmers Union (NFU) and the Union of Solicitor General Employees (USGE), of which the prisons’ correctional officers are members.
“This issue touches on everything from food security, food banks, rehabilitation and self-sufficiency,” said McCann.
He emphasized the rehabilitative aspects of farm work, which research has corroborated. “I toured the farms back in June 2009. ...I met people who have murdered, and talking about the impact of working with cows, milking them, taking care of them while sick—it’s a really profound change in their lives, and I can’t think of a more effective way to make Canada safer.”
Part of the government’s rationale for closing the farms has been that less than one per cent of former participants enter the agricultural sector after their release from prison, though critics—and several former inmates—have argued that the work experience is broadly applicable.
“We think the skills you can learn in the prison farms are useful, even for those who don’t go directly into farming,” said NFU Executive Director Kevin Wipf. “We don’t see the sense at all in taking away such an important method of rehabilitation.”
The 2007–08 annual report of CORCAN—the rehabilitation and employment-training arm of CSC—indicates that prison agribusiness is costly in contrast with its manufacturing programs, which bring in more money than they cost.
In an email to The Dominion, CSC Senior Media Relations Adviser Lori Pothier stated that the decision to close the prison farms was the result of a “Strategic Review process” which she said is meant to ensure that “all existing government programs be reviewed on a four-year cycle to ensure the programs are effective and efficient, and are meeting the needs of Canadians.”
NDP MP and Public Safety Critic Don Davies stated that a program’s expense should not dictate whether it is scrapped. “It’s not unimportant, but it should be seen as secondary to the primary goal of rehabilitation,” he said, adding that the availability of rehabilitative training programs is already far too limited. According to the CSC’s 2008–09 financial statement, only 0.4 per cent of its $2.2 billion annual budget went to CORCAN programs.
The Ministry of Public Safety, headed by Vic Toews, emphasizes that the program loses over $4 million annually, but has refused to disclose the full cost of outsourcing its food services to the private sector.
“There’s a lot they’re not telling us,” said USGE Labour Relations Officer Fred Sadori. “They haven’t even disclosed the numbers, so they haven’t given us a very good reason to believe that [closing prison farms] is a good idea.”
In her email, Pothier stated, “CSC does not anticipate any increase in the annual cost of food procurement due to the closing of the CORCAN farms. CSC will purchase food and products through existing contracting authorities and mechanisms, including the government tendering system.”
McCann said the privatization of CSC’s food services might save some money at first due to competitive bidding, but would likely lead to cost overruns in the future as firms attempt to ratchet up the price of their contracts with CSC.
The $4 million annual expense, said McCann, is “pocket change compared to the billions of dollars they plan on spending on expanding the prison system.”
McCann was referring to the $9 billion that Treasury Board president Stockwell Day recently requested for the expansion of the federal prison system in early August. Day claimed that the expansion was necessary due to an “alarming” spike in unreported crime. After being pressed for his source on this, Day pointed to a 2004 StatsCan report indicating that 66 per cent of criminal activity nationwide went unreported, up from about 58 per cent in 1993. (Reporters and bloggers were quick to point out the irony that only minutes earlier Day had criticized the long-form census as unreliable for being as much as five years out of date.)
Two weeks before Day’s announcement, StatsCan released data indicating that the national crime rate has declined by 17 per cent in the past decade. This encompassed a 22 per cent drop in StatsCan’s crime severity index, and a marked drop in violent crime, with homicides, attempted murder, serious sexual assaults and crimes against children comprising less than one quarter of one per cent of all reported offenses.
The Harper government's approach to the prison system, according to critics like Davies and McCann, has largely been shaped by a policy paper released in October 2007 entitled “A Roadmap to Strengthening Public Safety.” The document calls on several occasions for the CSC to “strengthen its partnerships” with the private sector, and recommends CORCAN in particular for private sector involvement.
The panel that authored the report was chaired by Rob Sampson, formerly the Minister of Corrections in the Ontario government of Mike Harris. Sampson was a staunch proponent of prison privatization during his tenure there, and established Canada’s first ever privately run prison. The Central North Correctional Centre was built to replace three older provincial prisons and was managed by the Utah-based Management and Training Corporation. (The Liberal government of Dalton McGuinty refused to renew Management and Training’s five-year contract once it expired in 2006, noting that publicly run jails offered better security, prisoner health care and rehabilitative programs.)
Following the precendent set by the Central North Correctional Centre, the Roadmap also calls for CSC to establish “regional complexes”—prisons that would accommodate several times more inmates than current federal penitentiaries, and encompass minimum-, medium- and maximum-security blocks. Neither Davies nor McCann have faith in the ability—or the intent—of such institutions to deliver meaningful programs to inmates.
“The Conservative approach to the prison system is entirely ideologically motivated, not empirically based,” said Davies, adding that he doubts the government will expand vocational, educational and rehabilitative programs in tandem with the rest of the prison system. “They just want to pursue their tough-on-crime agenda, which appeals to their base.”
Day’s push to expand the prison system has been matched with initiatives for longer prison terms and more convictions. One of the Roadmap’s recommendations is an end to statutory releases, and the implementation of a system of “earned parole.” (Under the current system of statutory releases, convicts are granted mandatory parole after two-thirds of their prison sentence has been completed, unless they have been identified as a significant threat to themselves or others.)
The Ministry of Justice under Rob Nicholson has also been angling to increase the country’s prison population. The day after Day revealed the planned prison expansion, Nicholson announced that crimes such as betting, keeping a bawdy house and trafficking in cannabis and barbiturates are now treated as “serious offenses.” This builds on legislation passed in 2007 that abolished conditional sentencing for serious offenses and enforced mandatory minimum sentences for gun crime, robberies and fraud.
Pothier stated that in the 2008 federal budget, “the Government announced its intent to fundamentally transform the federal corrections system, and one of the objectives was to provide more employment and employability skills for offenders.” She did not elaborate on what those skills would be, how much money would be allocated to those programs in the future, or what would be done to replace the prison farms program in the short run.
McCann noted that under Canada’s Corrections Act, the government has an obligation to offer some sort of employment training to supplement the farms program, but said he remains skeptical.
“I honestly feel that the Conservative government’s vision for the future of corrections in Canada is not to do corrections, but to do punishment.”
Niko Block is the Features Editor at the McGill Daily and sits on the Board of Directors of CKUT Radio in Montreal.
The Dominion is a monthly paper published by an incipient network of independent journalists in Canada. It aims to provide accurate, critical coverage that is accountable to its readers and the subjects it tackles. Taking its name from Canada's official status as both a colony and a colonial force, the Dominion examines politics, culture and daily life with a view to understanding the exercise of power.