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Scenes from a prison farm: these inmates raise cattle, grow vegetables, make maple syrup and keep bees

Ontario’s prison farm program was revitalized in 2019. How farm work and rehabilitation go hand-in-hand.

Ontario’s prison farm program was revitalized in 2019. How farm work and rehabilitation go hand-in-hand.

Nato is a former bodybuilder who feels that caring for farm animals is one of the ways he is able to deal with the guilt from his crime. (CBC / Prison Farm)

On my first day at Joyceville Institution, a prison near Kingston, Ont., a staff member escorting me to the farm told me, "Don't ask personal questions. Don't ask how long they're in for. Don't ask about their stories. Get to know them and let them tell you."

This advice was a gift.

I was there to make a documentary about prison farm projects at two Ontario institutions. The film reflects this journey, as the incarcerated men opened up and gradually told us their stories. We got to know them first, and then we got to see the impact of the farm on their incarceration experiences. This process was incredibly important to approaching the film in a sensitive and ethical way.

Officially, the prison farms are a job skills program. As I visited the farms and got to know the men, it was clear that their work helped them feel more human. It gave them something to focus on as they strived to make changes.

Nato

Working in federal prisons was a constant lesson in deprogramming stereotypes. When I first met Nato, I was intimidated. He was a bodybuilder with many tattoos and a long beard. 

Within 10 minutes of meeting him, he was snuggling a calf on the ground.

Nato smiles at a calf on the farm. The hardship of being away from his 19-year-old daughter weighs on Nato deeply; as new calves are born on the farm, he confronts both the life he took and his relationship with his daughter. (CBC / Prison Farm)

"I expected coming to prison, a lot more...bigger guys with more tattoos. And I didn't expect the farm. I didn't expect anything positive," he says in the documentary.

Nato, like the other men I worked with, wanted to make amends. Telling the story of the farm gave him an opportunity to reflect on his experiences and spread an important message about transformation during incarceration. 

"We're humans that have made mistakes. But sitting in a 6-by-10 block cell doesn't even touch on rehabilitation. It festers hate, it festers anger and resentment. It's the most isolated, desolate place anyone could ever be," Nato says. 

"The changes that I've made inside are going to aid me for the rest of my life."

Chris

The thing I remember most from my first conversation with Chris is his description of the minimum-security grounds: "the only fence is to keep the cows in". 

Chris is 26. He's more than comfortable on the farm since he has experience with heavy machinery and outdoor work. (CBC / Prison Farm)

In minimum security, there are only out-of-bounds areas; there are no physical barriers beyond the ones between minimum- and the higher levels of medium- and maximum-security.

If you've never been to Collins Bay Institution, you might be shocked to hear that. For Chris, the lack of fences meant he had earned the right to be there. And he wanted to do everything he could to show that he deserved that trust.

As 34 new calves arrive at the prison farm, Chris explains why he chose to work on the farm:

34 new "young and rambunctious" calves arrive at an Ontario prison farm: Prison Farm

2 months ago
1:06
"It's like I got a bunch of kids now," says Chris. He's one of the inmates working on a new prison farm in Kingston, Ont. The inmates work in the community garden, make maple syrup, keep bees and harvest honey, and take care of cattle. 1:06
 

He told me multiple times that before he was incarcerated, he didn't know the repercussions of his actions. Now, he knows there are "consequences to your consequences."

In that first conversation, Chris also described his love for his four year-old daughter and

how he wanted to fight to be able to see her again. He shared how hard it is to be a good father within the confines of a prison sentence. 

While we were filming Prison Farm, I witnessed him put that care into the farm. When the new baby calves arrived, he carried each one off the truck and immediately began bottle feeding them. For Chris, the farm helped fill the void of family.

"It's a good feeling because it's like I'm working towards something now," Chris says in Prison Farm. "It's definitely given me motivation to, you know, stay on the straight and narrow and not f--k up in here and throw it all away."

Chris hasn’t seen his four-year-old daughter since his sentencing. Bottle-feeding the baby cows allows him to care for something in the absence of his daughter, which is comforting to him. (CBC / Prison Farm)

Dan

Dan was the first person I met at Joyceville Institution. When I began working with him, told me all about working with the bees — how they helped him overcome his fears and feel calmer.

Dan grew up disconnected from his Métis heritage, but has started to reconnect to it while incarcerated. (CBC / Prison Farm)

Dan also works in the sugarbush; he told me that taking care of the forest was a way of giving back. Being in nature has helped him connect with his spirituality and The Creator. 

"When I heard this farm project was up and running again, I couldn't get to the signup sheet quick enough," Dan says in Prison Farm

"Before prison, I was never really in touch with my heritage. Being involved in the farm program, it gave me the opportunity to touch back with my Native culture. It's everything about nature and it's a really nice feeling. It's very spiritual for me."

Norm

"Did you know I won the lottery?"

It's one of my first days on the farm and I'm sitting in a tractor with Norm, wondering who this jovial man (who looks a bit like a sailor) is. 

This is an example of his candid nature.Yes, Norm won the lottery many years ago, but the winnings are long gone and it is his alcoholism that brought him to prison. "I was drinking and driving." 

Norm tells me he's lucky that he didn't hurt anyone, and concedes it could have been a lot worse.

"This is my rehabilitation.. my rehab," he tells me. 

Norm says the farm keeps his hands busy and helps him pass the time. (CBC / Prison Farm)

"I knew I had to get some kind of job because if you're just going to sit in the cell, you'll just rot away to nothing."

For Norm, the farm is a way of starting fresh and focusing on something different than the things that brought him to prison in the first place.

When the prison farm re-opened in 2019, offspring of the original cattle herd were brought back. Norm helps to care for the cows. (CBC / Prison Farm)

All the incarcerated men I worked with were open in ways I couldn't have imagined. It was clear from the start that the farms really mean something to them, and have changed them. 

I worked hard to honour what they shared with me in a sensitive way that tied the farm into their incarceration journeys and transformations. 

Even though I was on the outside and they were on the inside, I like to think we made this film together.

Tess Girard is the Director of Prison Farm.

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