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Prison farms in a time of global crisis: Thinking big, starting small

Graphic by Calvin Neufeld of Evolve Our Prison Farms.

Justice.

Sanctuary.

Empathy.

Rehabilitation.

Sustainability.

Community.

After just a few minutes of conversation with Calvin Neufeld, you can tell he thinks big. He wants to see all these values being lived out in our world.

But he also thinks small. That’s why, in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic, he’s currently focusing his attention on a specific goal: to put these interconnected values to work – literally – in Kingston’s prisons.

Ten years ago Neufeld was a neighbour of Collins Bay Institution and watched sympathetically as Save Our Prison Farms protested the Conservative government’s shuttering of the prison farm program. At that time the dairy-based program provided cows’ milk for the prison population and farm labour for the inmates who participated. But the program was scrapped because it was losing money and because the government believed the skills it gave prisoners were not well suited to the job market.

One of the Liberals’ 2015 election campaign promises was to reinstate the prison farms. Last year when that promise was realized and “the cows came home,” the Save Our Prison Farms activists, and the Kingston community as a whole, celebrated.

But the new prison farm model doesn’t reflect the values or goals of the old one – and not just because Correctional Services no longer allows prison farms to produce food for inmates, eliminating one of the farms’ main benefits. More distressingly for Neufeld, the current plan involves turning local prison farms into an industrial goat dairy operation reportedly producing milk for the Chinese-owned baby-formula factory being built in Kingston.

In 2016, Neufeld and his mother, Franceen Neufeld, co-founded a new initiative, Evolve Our Prison Farms, to promote a more ethically sound, sustainable prison farm system.

Evolve sees the goat dairy farm model as problematic for a number of reasons:

  • the dubious ethics of using prisoner labour for corporate profit-making
  • the potential illegality of exporting prison-produced goods
  • the moral problem of encouraging inmates to foster relationships with animals while also requiring them to participate in slaughter of those animals (the “care-kill” paradox)
  • the fact that the goats would be housed in an unnatural, controlled indoor factory-farm environment
  • the large numbers of goats, eradicating the benefits of individualized and empathetic animal interaction
  • the concern over the goats’ physical safety, given that most of the young bull calves purchased last year by Correctional Services have died under unknown circumstances

Calvin Neufeld respects the Save Our Prison Farms activists, whose protests and advocacy work inspired him. But he senses that many of them believe bringing the cows home and restoring a prison farm program was the single goal and that the government’s new model is better than no prison farms at all.  

He disagrees – and he’s troubled by how the whole situation seems to have morphed into a “happily-ever-after” community myth where David fought Goliath and won, end of story. Evolve Our Prison Farms is concerned that one Goliath is just going to be replaced by another – a foreign corporation focused on profit without concern for the well-being of the animals, inmates, or staff – and that while many Kingston residents are happy to hear that we got the farms back, they aren’t aware of the implications of the new model.

Many of the prisoners Neufeld has spoken to who have worked on prison farms also express concern about the factory-farming plan. They know long-term relationships with animals can have a therapeutic effect, aiding in rehabilitation and reintegration into society. The industrial goat dairy format doesn’t allow for this important bonding process – and if inmates are reluctant to participate, then the whole model is in jeopardy anyway.

But Neufeld is not interested in merely condemning the current plan. He has always had a positive vision of what the prison farm could be: a sustainable farm focused on plant-based agriculture, producing healthy food for prisoners and/or the community, developing crops and technology for green applications like building fibres and medicines, and offering sanctuary to animals and therapy to inmates. As concerns about climate change and sustainable living have grown, Neufeld believes the skills and knowledge a multi-faceted program like this could provide are a perfect fit for the direction our society must move.

And now, with potential worldwide food shortages as a result of Covid-19, Evolve believes the time is right to convert Kingston’s prison farm land into a federally funded food bank project. Such a project would increase food security during the pandemic and beyond, lessen the likelihood of virus outbreaks in prisons (as inmates working on the farm would alleviate overcrowding), and give inmates the opportunity for meaningful, rehabilitative, ethically sound volunteer work.

Which brings us back to those values mentioned at the beginning, like justice, empathy, community, and sustainability.

Featured prominently on the Evolve Our Prison Farms website is a collage picture of a tree with words and phrases running along the roots and trunk and adorning the branches and leaves. Neufeld laughs, “I wish I could say I used some fancy software for that, but I actually just typed the words and cut them out.” The roots of the tree are social justice, animal justice, prisoner justice, and environmental justice. The trunk is plant-based agriculture and sanctuary. The branches say healthy food, rehabilitation, reintegration, and ecological sustainability. And the leaves – the fruit of these principles and values – are research potential, jobs of the future, less greenhouse gases, cost savings, life-affirming, and more.

As I said, Calvin Neufeld thinks big. When I look at his tree, I find my imagination expanding too: all those leaves sprouting, all those positive effects of a justice-based vision. But it has to start small. We can’t gather a bunch of nice leaves, throw them into the air, and expect them to become a tree. We have to start at ground level, with a single seed of hope, and build from there.

With the COVID-19 crisis top of mind for leaders at all levels of government, Neufeld’s own hope is that this is the right time for a course correction in the prison farm plan. He hopes Kingstonians and Canadians will recognize the serious drawbacks of the corporate profit model for prison farms and catch the vision for a more ethical, sustainable program that benefits inmates, animals, the community, and the planet, while helping us survive one of the major global crises of our time.

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