Acampaign against the closing of Canada’s prison farms could signal a new opposition aggressiveness against the Conservative government’s anti-crime agenda when Parliament reconvenes next month.
Speakers at a panel discussion last week slammed Ottawa’s plan to shut down Correction Canada’s six prison farms, including the Rockwood Institution at Stony Mountain Penitentiary.
The closures reflect the Harper government’s tough-on-crime approach and its spurning of rehabilitation for prison inmates, charged Mark Holland, an Ontario Liberal MP and the party’s public safety critic.
“We’re moving toward a system that is all about punishment,” Holland said.
But opposition MPs on the panel were wary when asked if anti-crime bills would get a rough ride when reintroduced in the House of Commons.
“We’ll look at each bill as it comes forward,” said Wayne Easter, Liberal agriculture critic. “We will see what happens as the legislation comes in and deal with each on an individual basis.”
Niki Ashton, the NDP’s rural and community development critic, was also circumspect. “We’ll see,” was all she would say.
Nearly a dozen crime-related bills died on the order paper when Prime Minister Stephen Harper prorogued Parliament in January.
Opposition parties, especially the Liberals, have been accused of hesitating to oppose laws providing stiffer sentences for convicted criminals for fear of being branded as soft on crime.
But Holland said he was “sick and tired” of the accusation.
Besides Rockwood, the farms due for closure a year from now are: Riverbend Institution near Prince Albert, Saskatchewan; Bowden Institution in Innisfail, Alberta; Pittsburgh and Frontenac Institutions in Kingston, Ontario; Westmorland Institution in Dorchester, New Brunswick.
The six institutions employed 767 inmates at different times in 2008-09 and 524 in 2009-10, according to Corrections Canada.
The Feb. 1 panel discussion, hosted by the National Farmers Union and a grassroots coalition campaigning to keep the farms open, took place in Public Safety Minister Vic Toews’ constituency. Toews, who was in the riding at the time, was invited, but did not attend, citing scheduling conflicts.
In an email to panel organizers, Toews listed expense and a lack of employment opportunities for farm inmates as reasons for the shutdown.
“Very few inmates ultimately find jobs in the agricultural sector, despite time spent on prison farms and the significant cost invested ($4 million) to operate these farms,” Toews wrote.
“(W)e would better serve prisoners (and society) by having training focus on skills that lead to actual jobs in the community. Prison farms training does not do that any longer.”
Panelists rejected Toews’ argument, saying prison farms give inmates self-respect, a work ethic and a sense of responsibility.
“This is not being soft on criminals,” said John Hutton, executive director of the John Howard Society of Manitoba, who chaired the panel.
Easter, a former dairy farmer, and Kate Storey, an organic farmer from Grandview, said prison farms can also be therapeutic, especially for those who work with livestock.
“This type of work heals a person’s soul,” said Storey, representing the Green Party.
She read a testimony from one inmate at a prison farm who wrote, “The farm has saved my life.”
Not everyone in the audience agreed that prison farms are still relevant.
Cliff Graydon, Progressive Conservative MLA for Emerson, said the farms were established in a bygone era and have been rendered obsolete by modern agricultural technology.
“The prison farming system is not what it was 60 years ago,” said Graydon, a cattle producer from Woodmore. [email protected]