No place for farms in prison bonanza

March 31, 2010

Guelph Mercury, 31/03/10prison

In these achy days of post-recession hangovers, all anybody in Ottawa wants to talk about is slashing costs, delaying purchases and getting tough on spending.

Federal bureaucrats have been told to start trimming programs used by millions of Canadians. It’s time to make tough decisions, they say. It’s an era of restraint.

That is, unless you work for Corrections Canada. In that case, it’s bonanza time.

The department that runs Canada’s prisons is one of the few areas of government that isn’t experiencing belt-tightening as Ottawa tries to rein in our crippling $54-billion deficit.

Instead, the federal government has announced the department will soon be awash in taxpayers’ money, and will launch a massive hiring and expansion campaign. In the next three years, Corrections Canada plans to hire another 4,000 staff, and will watch its budget swell by 27 per cent, to $3.1 billion.

All this for a prison system that’s responsible for just 22,000 inmates, including 9,000 or so who are in halfway houses and living in the community on parole. According to this year’s budget, the federal government already spends about $112,000 per offender, with a staff-to-offender ratio of almost one to one.

And here’s the strange part. You would expect this expansion of Canada’s prison system to be a response to the crime wave crippling our country. But there is no crime wave. Far from it.

Canada’s crime rate has been dropping since 1991, and recently hit its lowest point in 25 years. Murders, break-ins, robberies and car thefts are all declining. So if Canada’s crime rate has been steadily declining for decades, why is our federal government acting as if it’s going in the other direction?

I’m especially confused, considering a year ago the same government said it didn’t have the $4 million it needed to keep operating six prison farms across the country. It announced it would be killing the program, just as it ramps up spending on super prisons.

By the end of this year, Corrections Canada will wind down its farm program that teaches 300 inmates skills from growing vegetables and making cuts of meat to raising livestock and harvesting eggs for food banks.

At these farms, prisoners get up before dawn, and spend their day producing food for the prison system and their community, doing something productive, something good. So what if few of them actually get jobs in agriculture after they’re released, as Corrections Canada has complained?

Lots of people have pleaded with the Conservatives to keep the prison farms open, including the National Farmers’ Union, saying agricultural skills are in high demand across the country.

The decision is “short-sighted,” they said, just as it was in 1972, when Ontario decided to phase out its own prison farms. That change in philosophy spelled the beginning of the end for Guelph’s Ontario Reformatory, which completely closed in 2001.

Our own provincial facility was once the biggest prison in the country. It produced milk, fresh meat, vegetables, canned fruit, jams, all which went to feed prisoners and other public institutions. The prisoners built extensive rock walls, man-made stream beds and ponds. They created a manicured 310-acre property that’s now enjoyed by fishermen, hikers and historians alike.

The work done at Guelph’s old prison farm taught valuable skills to thousands of inmates, produced food for many more – and saved taxpayers money. Back then, prison farms were seen as a progressive way to rehabilitate inmates.

Today, the Conservatives will tell you that kind of thinking is quaint and old-fashioned, with no place in this massive prison system expansion we’re all about to pay for.

And that’s a shame.

Greg Mercer is a journalist who lives in Guelph. His column appears Wednesdays. He can be reached at, and past columns can be read at

One Response to No place for farms in prison bonanza

  1. John Upper on March 31, 2010 at 10:11 am

    great column. you are right on. I worked for the National Parole Board and Corrections Canada and saw first hand the benefits of farm and outside work. The Conservatives are way off course in prison reform and crime prevention. They don’t seem interested in facts or logic.Keep up the good work.

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