It’s hardly surprising to hear that the six prison farms operated by Corrections Canada across the country collectively cost $4 million annually.
Farming is a complex business – one that calls for skills that aren’t necessarily compatible with the skills or training required to successfully operate a prison. A lot of career farmers can’t make money at farming either.
But since when are prisons supposed to make money? They service society by locking up the people whose behaviour has deviated from what the broader community considers normal or acceptable. That costs the rest of us money, no matter how you dice it.
A U. S.-based online debate over the cost effectiveness of imprisonment over capital punishment estimates it costs about US$50,000 to keep someone in prison for a year. (For those of you who are curious, the conventional wisdom says that for taxpayers, a life sentence is still a cheaper option than capital punishment once you factor in the cost of all those appeals.)
But finding cost-effective solutions for dealing with bad apples is not the point of prisons, at least not theoretically. It’s generally agreed that society over all is better served by getting those who run afoul of the law to mend their ways.
The reasons for criminal deviance are varied, but it’s safe to say that few of those prison inmates were born criminals; it was circumstances and the choices made along the way that put them on their path to prison. It’s also a safe bet, given Canada’s increasingly urbanized population, that few of those inmates grew up on farms.
This is not to suggest that we’d have no criminals if everyone farmed, although we didn’t seem to need as many prisons back in the days when we had an agrarian-based population that abided by the creed “nothing good comes of idle hands.”
We don’t know how they operate or how well Canada’s network of prison farms have lowered inmates’ likelihood to reoffend. Corrections Canada refused a Manitoba Co-operator reporter’s request for a tour of the farm associated with Stony Mountain Penitentiary recently on the basis our visit might prove harmful. To whom wasn’t specified.
All we do know is their cost to federal coffers and the statement reportedly by Public Safety Minister Peter Van Loan that inmates aren’t learning skills that would help them find jobs after their release.
If not, the question becomes why not?
Agricultural workers are certainly in demand. The Canadian Agricultural Human Resource Council has just launched an online data base last week linking to institutions and training providers that offer programs in agriculture. The council said over the next five years, an estimated 50,000 positions will need to be filled and Canada must confront this shortage. These jobs include supervisory and technical specialists, machinery operators and mechanics as well as general farm workers.
Of course, given the option, farm managers and food processors – like other employers – would be predisposed to hiring workers without a criminal record. But confronted as they are with chronic understaffing, they might become more willing to take a chance – giving ex-cons a second chance.
And maybe these farms need to undergo a broader assessment: are they businesses that can provide a larger service than making money?
That’s the feeling of a coalition of individuals and groups calling on the government to renew and expand its commitment to Canada’s prison farm program rather than abandon it.
Groups involved in raising concerns about the plan to close the prison farms include the National Farmers Union, the Canadian and Ontario Federations of Agriculture, Agriculture Alliance of New Brunswick, the Council of Canadians, Food Secure Canada, the Union of Solicitor General Employees, the Christian Farmers Federation of Ontario, and the Sisters of Providence of St. Vincent de Paul.
“Inmates in the prison farm program learn farm and food-processing skills, as well as employment attitudes such as punctuality, taking responsibility and teamwork,” said Jeff Peters, a director with the Frontenac Cattleman’s Assoc.
Even if the prison farming experience doesn’t directly result in a job, there is still something to be said for a program that gives inmates an opportunity to connect with land and food. There is something both humbling and humanizing about learning to work with soil and livestock. If these operations can do double duty by teaching skills in animal care, production agriculture, food processing or meat plant operations – skills that are in demand – even better.
Perhaps these farms are not delivering those benefits as they are run today. But if they aren’t, the government should be investing in fixing them, not dismantling them.
“The decision by CSC to dismantle the prison farms is short sighted and wrong headed,” said the NFU’s Andrea Cumpson.
We agree. [email protected]