Kingston prison farms returning with new federal funding

Two prison farms in Kingston, Ont., will be coming back with new money from the federal Liberals, nearly a decade after the program was cut by the previous Conservative government.

Inmate work program cut by Conservatives in 2010

Jeff Peters and Olivia Groenewegen hold on to Stormy the donkey during a protest outside Correctional Service Canada regional headquarters in Kingston, Ont., in July 2010. The federal government announced Tuesday that funding for two prison farms in Kingston will be reinstated. (Lars Hagberg/Canadian Press)

Two prison farms in Kingston, Ont., will be coming back with new money from the federal Liberals, nearly a decade after the program was cut by the previous Conservative government.

This week's federal budget commits $4.3 million to restore the farms at the Joyceville and Collins Bay institutions later this year or in 2019.

"We are really excited that the money has been given to restore the farms," said Jeff Peters, part of the Pen Farm Herd Co-op, which bought cattle from the prison farms when they were shut down. "It's been a really long haul."    

Peters was one of hundreds of people who campaigned to save the program, and one of dozens who were arrested in 2010.

Farms closed by Conservatives

Despite those efforts, the farms, along with four others in New Brunswick, Manitoba, Alberta and Saskatchewan, were closed in 2010 by the Conservative government, which said at the time that they weren't effective at rehabilitating inmates.

By the time it ended, the Collins Bay Institution's farm employed dozens of inmates to collect milk and eggs, which went to other prisons and local food banks.

"People of all political leanings told us closing the prison farms didn't make any sense," said Dianne Dowling, a member of the Save Our Prison Farms (SOPF) committee said in a news release. 

"Some people liked the idea that inmates were contributing food to the prison system. Others saw it as good employment training, or as a rehabilitation program, particularly through working with animals."  

Liberal election promise

Not long after coming into power in 2015, the Liberal government said it was looking into relaunching the program.

In May 2017 Peters became part of federal advisory panel to look at the possibility of doing just that.  

The budget said the government wants "to provide federal inmates with training opportunities to acquire new skills, while preparing for employment and successful reintegration and rehabilitation into the community."

The farms would be run by CORCAN, a division of Correctional Services Canada, that gives inmates job skills by making products including standing desks, blankets and pillows, and portable classrooms. 

Chicken, pigs, honey 

According to Peters, the money will be available beginning in April, and will help pay for a new barn to replace the 50-year-old structure that still stands on land at the Collins Bay Penitentiary.  

Peters said the goal is to be up and running before next winter, beginning with 33 cows, a few of which were part of the original program when it closed in 2010.

Peters said the barnyard will eventually expand to include chickens, pigs and possibly a colony of bees to make honey.  

Organizers are also looking at making cheese out of the milk.  

"The artisan cheese industry and job demands are growing like crazy in eastern Ontario, so that's a great skill for the prisoners to have." 

Peters would eventually like to see all six prison farms across Canada re-opened, and sees the Ontario farms as examples of what's possible.

"We are determined to keep going," he said.