Jonathan Davies (with a file by Jeff Green) | Mar 14, 2018

Just as relief was sweeping over Kingston at the news that prison farms would be reinstated, the federal government announced it did not plan to bring back the now famed Pen Herd that had been separated following the closures in 2010.

Instead, Corrections Services Canada will be looking to develop goat milking operations, manned by inmates, that will see product going to the nearby Feihe plant to be turned into baby formula for the Chinese market instead of back into the prison system as had been the case before the farms were closed in 2011.

Since the prison farms were dismantled under the Harper government, advocates have been steadfast in demonstrating, holding vigil every Monday night, and pushing at every turn to see what was widely viewed as a sensible and effective program brought back.

After celebrating a hard fought victory at the weekly vigil on March 5, they found out the next morning at a meeting of the Citizen’s Advisory Panel they had been sitting on for a year and a half, without forewarning, that Corrections Canada had decided to go in a new direction. The Collins Bay Institution, which housed the dairy farm previously, will be devoted to cash crops and horticulture, and at the Joyceville Penitentiary, the goat dairy operation is to be set up. The Pen Herd of dairy cattle that had been purchased and cared for by Save Our Prison Farm members since the prison farms closed up, will not be brought back.

Citizen’s Advisory Panel member Jeff Peters said “we were shocked, more than shocked, when the statement about their intentions was read out. Nothing had been said at the previous meetings to lead us to believe this was going to be the outcome.”

According to Dianne Dowling, past president of the NFU local 316 and one of the key members of Save Our Prison Farms, “The prisoners were 'paying their way through agriculture,' as the signs on the farms said.” She notes that the public was receptive to the value of the program in helping inmates develop important life skills (while the Harper government declared agricultural skills irrelevant) and the therapeutic benefits of working with animals.

The Save Our Prison Farms campaign garnered tremendous backing in the region, enough to make it an important issue in the 2015 election campaign, leading to those promises of reinstatement that are currently coming to a fruition of sorts.

Yet, as events have unfolded, few are pleased with the specifics.

Evolve Our Prison Farms is a group similarly interested in seeing the Prison Farm programs reemerge, with some notable differences in vision to that of Save Our Prison Farms.

Cofounder Calvin Neufeuld notes, “The government managed to disappoint both of Kingston’s prison farm advocacy groups equally.”

Neufeuld wants to see farms back and the cows as well, but not for the purposes of producing animal products such as cheese, which had been originally planned. The group envisions a program where inmates will tend to the cows without carrying out inseminating, weaning and slaughter, which the group views as counterproductive to rehabilitation. “If human-animal therapy was the core benefit of the farm program, this can be achieved through a sanctuary model.”

Evolve Our Prison Farms sees multiple problems with the goat dairy proposal In a press release issued this week, the group decried the federal government's willingness to “put[sic] foreign economic interests ahead of democratic process.”

Speaking to the government's motives, the group suggests, “the restoration of the farm program was never about responding to public demand, and it was never about rehabilitation.”

In December, Evolve Our Prison Farms submitted a 13,000 signature petition calling for a sanctuary for the Pen Herd and any other animals brought to prison farms. Neufeld has found the government less than receptive.

Dowling, meanwhile, suggests that a dairy goat proposal could have a place in the reestablishment of the farms, but notes that goat farming is a less established industry than that of dairy cows. “There will be a big learning curve for CSC [Correction Services Canada] and for the inmates caring for the goats,” says Dowling. The citizen advisory panel had proposed first establishing a 50cow dairy herd with a cheese-making facility. Goats, as they saw it, could be considered once this was in place.

Dowling urges prison farm supporters to contact MPs, particulary cabinet ministers as discussions continue. The Prison Farm Advisory Panel has meetings scheduled with Minister of Public Safety Ralph Goodale this week to review the recently announced plans.

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