Two of six prison farms shuttered by the Harper government were officially reopened this week.
Their goal is to expose inmates to farming as a form of rehabilitation.
But the farms won’t operate the same way they used to. Critics say they will be used to exploit inmate labour, critics say.
On Thursday Karen McCrimmon, parliamentary secretary to the minister of public safety and emergency preparedness, announced that two federal prisons in Kingston — Joyceville and Collins Bay — will see their farm programs reopened.
“These farms were closed almost 10 years ago, now they’re back. And during the last federal election campaign we committed to under take a review of the decision to close the farms. That’s exactly what we did,” she said.
In its 2018 federal budget the Liberals committed $4.3 million over five years to revive the two prison farms, which will feature livestock, dairy goats, organic produce and beekeeping.
A decade ago the Harper government cancelled the programs, saying they offered inmates no practical skills for the job market.
But Liberal MP Mark Gerretsen, who also attended Thursday’s announcement, said he’s heard directly from inmates who touted the program’s value.
“A couple inmates came forward and said this wasn’t about me learning how to be a farmer,” he said. “This was about me learning how to be a productive member of society and developing skills to be able to be a productive member of society.”
Shaun Shannon, a former inmate, agrees. He spent 23 years in prison and worked in the farm program in the 1990s.
“I didn’t have any empathy or any self worth when I showed up here. I was just a miserable person,” he said. “And because you’re responsible for another life you get a sense of empathy, a sense of respect.”
But Shannon wasn’t on hand Thursday to celebrate the program’s relaunch. Instead he was protesting, saying under the new program inmates won’t be producing healthy food for themselves. Instead, he said, they will be producing for the market.
“It’s just gonna be a big factory farm and it’s just gonna be exploitation,” he said. “There’s gonna be no personalization, that there’s gonna be no rehabilitative aspect to it. It doesn’t make sense.”
Kelly Hartle of Correctional Service Canada said the revenue from sales of produce and goods will be used to self-fund the program, and that the value to inmates is in making them employable.
Calvin Neufeld of the group Evolve Our Prison Farms, was also on hand Thursday to protest the announcement.
Neufeld says a large herd of dairy goats scheduled to arrive at the farm next year will amount to a factory farm and exploitation of prison labour.
“The program is not going to be beneficial to the inmates,” he said. “It’s essentially going to be factory farming animals to supply external markets.”
Indigenous people are overrepresented in Canada’s prison system. According to the Correctional Service of Canada they make up 29.4 per cent of the inmate population.