Keep the prison farms running

NationalPost.com – Opinion/Editorial
Wednesday, Aug. 11, 2010

The Conservative government appears to have a talent for making Alps out of anthills. From proposing a rewrite of O Canada, to scrapping the mandatory long form census, it has managed to turn obscure issues into national debates. Canadians are left scratching their heads as to both the rationale for the government’s actions as well as the amount of attention Ottawa is paying to this type of minutiae. The latest case in point is the closing of Canada’s prison farms. In 2009, Canada’s prison system housed 13,286 inmates. Of these, 300 worked on the system’s six farms in Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Ontario and New Brunswick. Some farms, such as the one attached to the Kingston penitentiary, ran at a profit, others at a loss. The government claims that the overall program cost taxpayers $4-million annually. This amounts to $13,333 per participating prisoner, per year.

The government’s main arguments in favour of closing the farms are lack of benefits and costs to taxpayers. Neither justification holds up to scrutiny. First, the lack of benefits. In a news conference this week, Public Safety Minister Vic Toews claimed that less than 1% of inmates working on the farms find work in agriculture after they are released. However, he did not report how many prisoners landed jobs using “nonagricultural” skills — such as mechanical repair, operating large machinery, inventory tracking, teamwork, punctuality and a basic work ethic — that they picked up on the prison farms. Second, the high costs. At $13,333 per inmate per year, how does the price of the farms compare with other training and rehabilitative programs? The government has not said what will replace the prison farms. Will these programs cost more, or less? Will they be more effective in reintegrating prisoners into society? What skills will be taught?

In addition, replacing the foodstuffs produced on the farms may end up costing the taxpayer more than the cost of running the farms themselves. Earlier this year, the government put out a tender calling for a milk supplier for the Kingston penitentiary — at an annual cost of $900,000 a year. The government has not said whether it will save money, or increase costs, by now having to outsource milk for the prison. Of course, some of the opposition to the closures is driven by self-interest. Save our Prison Farms (SOPF) is headed by Dianne Dowling, vice-president of the Kingston chapter of the local National Farmers Union. Naturally, the NFU has a vested interest in promoting agriculture and taxpayer support of its industry. It views the closing of any farm as a blow to its business and attendant economic and political clout.

Which is what makes the government’s decision to close the farms even more incomprehensible. The Conservatives have traditionally appealed to a rural voter base. Apart from allowing barley farmers to secede from the Canadian Wheat Board monopoly, they have thus far refused to challenge Canada’s agricultural supply management system. They have generously subsidized the industry, even adding new programs, such as taxpayer-funded support for ethanol production, which uses corn.

Yet by picking on the tiny issue of prison farms, the Tories have managed to stir up a hornets’ nest of protest, running the gamut from long-time foes such as author Margaret Atwood to more small-c conservative voices, such as Father Raymond de Souza. And in between are the very farmers the Conservatives hope to court in the next election.

It all adds up to another inexplicable, poorly thought-out, poorly communicated decision on an issue which was previously of scant interest to the general public. The prison farm closure has managed to overshadow the government’s “tough-on-crime” initiative and make observers question the wisdom of its other decisions in this policy area.

If the Conservatives can’t provide a credible case for closing prison farms, how can we trust their rationale for other parts of their justice agenda? Until the government can put some meat on the bones of its decision, complete with an actual cost-benefit analysis and alternatives, then it should keep the farms open.

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