Milking Prison Labour
Briarpatch|November/December 2019
Canada’s prison farms are being reopened. But when prisoners will be paid pennies a day, and the fruits of their labour will likely be exported for profit, there’s little to celebrate.
Erin Innes

In June of 2018, the federal Liberals announced that “the cows are coming home”: closed nine years earlier by the Harper government, the prison farms at Joyceville and Collins Bay institutions in southern Ontario, just outside of Kingston, would be opening again.

For many in Kingston, it seemed like a victory. Since February of 2009, when the Tories first announced the sudden closure of all six federal prison farms in the country, a coalition of local farmers, residents, and community advocates called Save Our Prison Farms (SOPF) had been holding public meetings, organizing, and even getting arrested trying to keep the farms from closing, and then fighting to have them reopened.

Organic farmer Dianne Dowling, member of the National Farmers Union (NFU) and former president of the Kingston local, was one of those spearheading the effort. “The prison farms represent about 1,500 acres of some of the best farmland in the area,” says Dowling. “Our [union] local had been working to build the local food and farm system in the area for several years, through events and projects, and we did not want such good farmland going out of farming.” The campaign grew and began attracting national attention, and when cows from the original herd were being auctioned off in 2010, more than 100 groups and individuals contributed money to form the Pen Farm Herd Co-op, which was able to purchase some of the cows and keep the bloodline going in the hopes of one day restoring the herd from its original stock.

The winds began to shift with the election of the Trudeau Liberals in 2015 and, in 2016, a public meeting in Kingston marked the beginning of a community consultation process about reopening the farms. Seven members of the public, including members of SOPF, were asked to join a citizen advisory panel to address the issue, and Dowling was one of them. She describes the panel’s relationship with the Correctional Service of Canada (CSC) and its business arm, CORCAN, as “respectful,” but notes that the panel’s role is strictly advisory. Still, thanks to the work of SOPF and the Pen Farm Herd Co-op, in June of this year some of the descendants of that original herd were delivered to Collins Bay, where they are currently being cared for by prisoners working on the farm, in anticipation of restarting the dairy program there.

DAIRY OR SANCTUARY?

But not everyone is happy about it. Calvin Neufeld lived next door to the farm at the Collins Bay institution when the fight to save the farms began. “I thought the farms were worth protecting for their benefit to prisoners, who could work outdoors, grow their own food, and benefit from healing interaction with animals,” says Neufeld. “When the farms were coming back, we saw an opportunity to propose an alternative to the former model, essentially taking what was good about the former model and enhancing it, and when we heard there were some academics working on a very similar proposal of animal-assisted therapy and using the prison farms to pilot climate solutions, we came together to form a coalition under the name Evolve Our Prison Farms.”

EOPF objects to the way the dairy farm will be run when the program is reinstated. In the current plan, both cows and goats will be raised for milk production on the prison farms. These dairy operations will function as modern industrial dairies, on a fairly large scale and with equipment like milking machines. As in any industrial dairy operation, cows and goats will be bred on a regular schedule, often with artificial insemination. Male offspring, as well as females who aren’t producing enough milk, will be slaughtered for meat. Even with modern equipment, there’s still a lot of labour on a dairy farm: incarcerated workers will take on the day-to-day care of the animals, such as feeding, cleaning barns, bringing animals in for milking, and seeing to the animals’ day-to-day health and safety needs.

Neufeld and EOPF believe that there’s no benefit for incarcerated people in working with animals that are destined for milk production and, ultimately, slaughter. Instead, the organization would like to see animals on the farms performing an animal-assisted therapy role – treating them more like pets than farm animals. EOPF hopes to see an entirely vegan operation that involves only plant-based agriculture on the prison farms, tied to a larger program of offering plant-based food in the prison system as a whole.

Dowling disagrees that there’s no benefit for prisoners in raising livestock at the farms. “There are ecological and regenerative ways to farm livestock and crops, and there are degenerative, ecology-destroying ways to farm livestock and crops,” she says. “I would like to see the inmates working with agroecological methods, seeing the fullness of the relationship between livestock and land. I think that incarcerated people will benefit from working with animals being raised for livestock agriculture.”

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