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Opinion: The truth about CBC’s ‘Prison Farm’

Six dairy cattle arrived at Collins Bay Institution on Tuesday, Jun. 4, 2019 and were greeted by members of the Save Our Prison Farms Advisory Group. Photo courtesy of MP Mark Gerretsen.

The following is a submitted Op/Ed article written by Calvin Neufeld and Kevin Belanger. The views and opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of Kingstonist.

Recently, CBC aired a so-called “documentary” about the prison farms in Kingston. The Kingston Whig-Standard followed with an article praising the film. Both the film and article are riddled with misinformation. It’s time to set the record straight, lay the facts on the table, and shine a light on an unsettling mixture of deception and propaganda.

First, the film makes no mention of the planned core enterprise of the new prison farms: a commercial-industrial 2,200-goat dairy operation expected to supply Feihe’s infant formula exports to China. This key fact has also been conspicuously omitted from all of CBC’s extensive coverage of the prison farms, even though Access to Information reveals that CBC has all the necessary documentation.

These documents also show that CBC made a commitment from the outset to “highlight the benefits of the prison farm programs” through a series of articles, and by recruiting a filmmaker to show how “livestock and crops contribute to remarkable rehabilitation.” The figures detailing how much money CBC invested into this promotional film have been fully redacted.

Second, by including staged scenes and false information, the “Prison Farm” film has forfeited any right to be called a documentary. One example is the scene where inmates lay out jars of honey and maple syrup on a table and a guard hands over money in exchange for a jar. According to one person involved, who wishes to remain anonymous, this scene was “totally bogus.”

The exchange of money between staff and inmates is strictly prohibited by the Correctional Service of Canada (CSC); giving prison products free to staff is also against protocol. Even so, the honey and syrup produced on the farms can’t be served internally or sold commercially for a variety of reasons, and they have been taken home freely by staff.

The film also creates the false impression that the inmate gardens and the produce donated to food banks are part of CSC’s prison farm program. Even the official poster for the film is a photo of the inmate garden at Collins Bay Institution.

In an article in Frontenac News earlier this year, former inmate Kevin Belanger explained that these vegetable gardens have been paid for and run by inmates for over a decade, and that they are “a source of pride for the inmates who dedicate their time, energy, and money to helping those in the community who are less fortunate.”

“Inmates wish to make it clear,” wrote Belanger, “that their gardens and food bank donations are in no way connected to the new prison farm program, despite misleading statements from the Correctional Service of Canada.”

Third, there is a massive disconnect between statements in the Whig-Standard article and reality. The article states that CSC “was receptive” to the documentary, and filmmaker Tess Girard “made it clear that she wouldn’t hold back on any of the program’s shortcomings. CSC said it was fine with that.”

But the film does not mention any shortcomings. It is mute on the planned investment of nearly $15 million in taxpayer funds to construct a 100,000 square foot industrial dairy facility at Joyceville Institution to house Canada’s largest goat farm and put prisoners to work for less than $1 per hour for commercial purposes. According to the Queen’s Business Law Clinic, this “would be deemed criminal” by the United Nations as a violation of human rights. If ever there were a shortcoming worth mentioning in a documentary about Kingston’s prison farms, this would be it.

The film’s original synopsis stated that the film would “give focus to criticism of the program in an effort to give a balanced argument.” However, in a January 2020 email exchange, Girard confessed that she was pressured to remove that paragraph.

“My access to the farm has come under question and I did not want CSC to question my motives,” wrote Girard. “Any amount of questioning could jeopardize this while I renegotiate my access…”

“Please be understanding that I am in a delicate situation,” she urged.

Finally – though there is vastly more to be said – the Whig article admits that the filmmaker had difficulty finding inmates to participate. This is not surprising, as support for the farms among the inmate population is extremely low and declining. Only a couple of inmates initially expressed willingness, then backed out. The Whig even reports that one “disappeared from the farm and never returned,” an odd statement to leave dangling.

Since implementation began in 2018, the prison farms have cost taxpayers $8.8 million, according to CSC spokesperson Esther Mailhot. “And CSC has nothing to show for it,” says Belanger, “except four guys patting cows and a give-honey-to-staff program.”

The industrial goat farm was originally the only plan for the new prison farms, as announced in 2018 before CSC realized they had a public relations problem on their hands. The solution, as they saw it, was to add a few cows and bees. CSC’s industrial milking facility was supposed to be built and operational by 2019, selling the milk to goat dairy brokers and generating revenue by 2020. So far, this has failed due to logistical problems and scrutiny. As for the cows, CSC documents claim they will be milked for “research quota” (not for consumption or sale), but no quota has been acquired since the arrival of the cows in 2019. The cows and the prison farms themselves lie in goat-dependent limbo.

There is a story to be told, but it’s not what the film and the article would have us believe. The truth is that the cows “coming home,” the bees, CSC’s attempts to take credit for the inmate gardens, and now this film, have all been deliberate and effective distractions from the truth. As described by Save Our Prison Farms activist Helen Forsey, this coordinated effort has been “a wholesale attempt – so far shamefully successful – to deceive absolutely everybody.”

Calvin Neufeld is the founder of Evolve Our Prison Farms.
Kevin Belanger is the former Inmate Committee Chairman at Joyceville Institution.

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2 thoughts on “Opinion: The truth about CBC’s ‘Prison Farm’

  • November 4, 2021 at 8:14 am
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    CSC propaganda film should be exposed as the second opinion letter outlines, regarding the prison farm. Only the Feds could work so hard to ruin what was once a valuable program and then try to hood wink the rest of us. Shame. Let the cows come home and return to being a real farm rehab program, not a slave labour market.

  • November 4, 2021 at 9:37 am
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    Is the attempt “to deceive absolutely everybody” have to do with the goat operation?
    I know nothing about the Feihe project other that what I’ve read in the Whig and some farm papers but there seems to be a phoniness about the whole business.
    Ian Murray
    Commercial sheep farmer
    Amherst Island

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