Kingston protesters stand up for their city’s prison farm

TheStar.com – Opinion/Editorial Opinion
Published On Tue Aug 17 2010.  Michael Hurley

While Toronto had the G20 summit snafu, Kingston now has the prison farms fiasco — yet another example of the Conservatives’ unscrupulous behaviour. Indeed, the Tories have a talent for alienating just about everyone these days. Even small “c” conservatives have been condemning the costly, ill-advised prison farm closures.

Not that you’re going to get an unbiased view of the prison farm issue from me. I am writing this column less than 24 hours after the shackles have finally been removed, following a sleepless night in a toilet-paper-free jail cell, atop a cement bed, under bright lights, hosted by Kingston’s finest.

This was not something a quiet, family-type guy a few months shy of 60 with only two speeding tickets to his name and certainly no arrests had ever expected. Certainly not as a professor of English at the Royal Military College where I am a grateful recipient of a teaching excellence award.

Where did I go wrong? To begin with, I listened to a Torontonian — none other than that known subversive and corrupter of minds, the infamous Margaret Atwood. During a recent visit, she led 1,200 Kingstonians on one of the mellowest, merriest marches ever to grace the Limestone City. Uppity seniors with their knitting, young parents with toddlers, a hay wagon, and even Stormy the donkey joined in.

Our destination? The door of the Correctional Services of Canada regional headquarters where Atwood and farmer Jeff Peters (my future cellmate) posted a notice protesting the shutting down of one of the most successful prison rehabilitation programs in the country’s history.

Atwood was trying to wake the Conservative dead after 16 months of peaceful public events, petitions, letters to the editor and MPs, delegations to various officials, and requests for dialogue by the local citizens’ group Save Our Prison Farms had met with absolutely no effect. The feisty author noted that at a time when world attention is focused on looming food shortages linked to climate change and other countries are scrambling to promote more food self-sufficiency, “the government of Canada is making exactly the wrong move.”

Calling the closures an insult to farmers across Canada, whose work Stephen Harper clearly does not value, she went on to state the obvious: these prison farms reflect Canadian values. Paving over thousands of acres of prime farmland to erect costly, for-profit, U.S.-style super-prisons when government statistics show crime rates are down defies reason.

On Aug. 8, hundreds of Kingstonians began what turned into a two-day standoff and blockade of livestock trucks, hired by what was dubbed: “The Harper Gang of Notorious Cattle Rustlers.” The rustlers’ goal: to forcibly remove the prize dairy herd from the Frontenac Institution prison farm. The problem was that nobody, except Harper and his gang, wanted to see the cows go. Hundreds of Kingstonians driving by honked their horns in support of the blockade; inmates refused to load the animals they had nurtured onto the gigantic trucks; prison guards brought protesters pizza; and one trucker broke into tears when told — as the government had not — what the situation was. He had no idea that 500 citizens who had exhausted every legal channel had been driven to civil disobedience as a last resort.

Atwood had reminded her audience that Harper promised during his last campaign to incarcerate 14-year-old criminals for life. This came back to haunt us as the police grabbed a 14-year-old girl — their first arrest. An 87-year-old grandmother was the next to be hauled away. The first man to go into the paddy wagon was a senior with a cane. It was a bad day for young and old, including potential hypothermia in hours of cold rain. Although many of us vowed to stay all night, we eventually went home, prepared to fight another day when more trucks were expected.

Early Monday morning, we were shocked to discover there were many more city police and OPP officers than protesters. I don’t think Torontonians need to be reminded what that looks and feels like. Needless to say, there were more arrests and manhandling. Twenty-four Kingstonians found themselves behind bars.

My fellow criminals in Cell 26 were: a cancer research technologist, a minister, a man who had spent 17 years with Corrections Canada and knew the prison farm program worked, organic fruit and vegetable growers, and a film animator. In spite of our experience, our convictions remained firm, our mood upbeat. We vowed we had just begun.

By the way, before the shackles but after the handcuffs, the police confiscated my orthopedic shoes and my floss. Then they took my reading material: books by Atwood and Kingston writer, Steve Heighton. Heighton’s latest novel, Every Lost Country, is about seeing through illusion. He argues that we can’t afford to be “bystanders” — lazy citizens content to let others do the dirty work of protecting our human rights and freedoms. I suggest you buy a copy — and read it before it’s confiscated.

Michael Hurley is a professor of English at the Royal Military College in Kingston.

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