Save the prison farms

Tom Allen on the plan to mow under Canada's six penitentiary farms.

In late February, the Correctional Service of Canada announced it would begin closing down its six prison farms.

We've had prison farms in this country since the 1880s. There is currently one in each of B.C., Alberta, Saskatchewan and New Brunswick, and two in Ontario. But now the entire program is to be shut down by 2010, with the two in Ontario, both in the Kingston area, the first to go.

The idea of a prison farm is an elegant one. Inmates work to produce the food they eat, easing the burden on the public purse and, in the process, gaining experience that they can use when they get out and need to find a good job.

But these days, says Correctional Service, very few former inmates end up working on farms and the thinking is that training prisoners in more contemporary occupations would be better.

A giant raspberry to the idea of shutting down the dairy farms at Canada's prisons, our columnist says. (Associated Press)

What are these contemporary occupations? We've yet to hear any specifics but I have to confess the possibilities make me nervous.

Computers are one choice and an obvious application would be finance. It seems to me, though, that right now we have enough questionable experience in that employment sector.

Besides, there's a good chance that some prior experience with financial manipulation is what put this particular student body where it is today.

A tough row to hoe

Crime is what happens when ambition and opportunity bump into each other just as integrity happens to be out of town for the weekend.

It seems to happen all the time, whether you're an energy trader or a mortgage broker or a convenience store cashier. The job of a prison program ought to be to limit opportunity while giving integrity every reason to come back and stay

Farming may be old fashioned, but I think it does just that.

For one thing, farming is daily work. When you're looking at months or years without being able to go anywhere, daily work passes the time in a very healthy way.

There's no quick payoff or shortcuts and the results of your work, if you're diligent and consistent, are tangible.

Farming also has a handy assessment tool: the harvest. Sins and omissions might go undetected for a time, but by the end of the season they all come back into view.

If it's your own and your neighbours' lunch you are supposed to be producing, the consequences are all too clear.

We may not be the agrarian nation we once were, but there's a reason the expression "You reap what you sow" still has currency.

Pigeons home to roost

This is not to say farming as a profession is free of questionable opportunities. In recent years, for example, hundreds of Canadian farmers converted their operations in order to breed pigeons.

They had been wooed by an Ontario-based operation called Pigeon King International, which promised to buy back chicks at lucrative prices, even though it wasn't entirely clear that there was a market for all those birds.

The money was there in the beginning, but when Pigeon King declared bankruptcy last summer, it took the life savings of 1,000 farmers with it and left behind some $40 million in debt.

Canada's prison farms, you have to assume, aren't big on get-rich-quick schemes. And as the corrections authorities have pointed out, these farms aren't really training farmers in any event.

But that doesn't mean they aren't training people.

A powerful message

The Frontenac farm, near Kingston, enjoys 455 hectares of some of the country's best farmland.

It's a dairy farm that feeds its own population and contributes to the kitchens in the rest of Canada's prisons as well. According to news reports, it has about 130 cattle and produces 4,000 litres of milk per day. In terms of productivity, the herd ranks in the top 20 per cent in Ontario.

Frontenac is an imposing place, beautiful in its way, with red steeples charging into the sky.

Sixty prisoners work the fields behind those towers. I have no idea who they are or what they want to do when they've done their time.

Still, there has to be value in getting up early to nurture a field of grain, to see it rise up from nothing, little by little, until it yields a crop that will feed a herd of cattle through the winter. For someone about to head back out into the world, I imagine that could carry a powerful message.

It's a message that you hope would stay with someone, even when a questionable opportunity comes along.

The opposition is claiming the government is shutting down the farms to sell the land, which could be worth a fair amount of money.

That is an opportunity as well.

You wouldn't expect a bunch of smart guys from Ottawa in expensive suits to come down to Kingston and walk out through the spring mud to ask 60 convicted criminals what they think of the decision to shut down the prison farms. But we can always hope.