The federal government is bringing prison farms back to Canada, starting in Kingston Ontario. Despite the potential to create a healing and therapeutic program for prisoners, the new prison farms will primarily be an industrial goat dairy operation, with 2,200 goats producing milk expected to supply infant formula for China. Beef and dairy cows will be added as well, and prisoners slaughter animals in an onsite prison abattoir.
In a March 2021 News Release about the Penitentiary Farm Program, Correctional Service Canada (CSC) announced that implementation of the dairy goat operation part of the Program will be temporarily paused due to the pandemic. Further reading about CSC’s plans to set up intensive goat farms at the Joyceville and Collins Bay federal penitentiaries in Kingston mystifies and concerns me. I am writing as a lay person with no recognized expertise in the rehabilitation of inmates or humane correctional environments, nor in the environmental or animal welfare implications of intensive animal farming. But I do confidently assert that I am among the many Canadians who consider the values of compassion, dignity and respect, and responsibility, fundamentally important. And it is through this “values lens” that I outline my opinion.
Intensive animal farming contributes to physical, emotional and mental suffering in many ways – lack of freedom of movement and lack of freedom to express natural behaviours are just two examples. Inmates may enjoy working with animals and yet may be concerned about procedures that diminish the welfare of the animals. Such potentially negative experiences are relevant in properly assessing the government’s responsibility to provide inmates with a safe and humane environment free of violence.
Respect and Dignity:
I imagine that appropriately designed rehabilitative programs would aim to provide ongoing opportunities for productive training and for enhancing an individual’s positive development, which in turn would impact the likelihood of future success and reintegration into the community. Participation in such programs should of course be voluntary, safe, and for a good purpose. Generally, however, from what I have read, opportunities for work in the dairy industry are neither likely (from a labour market perspective), nor desirable (from a working conditions perspective). Furthermore, the question of fairness has rightly been raised in connection with the possibility of the government selling goat milk to a private company for profit while the inmates working in the program earn less than a dollar an hour.
The reality of intensive animal farming comes with legitimate concerns about air pollution and water pollution, waste disposal, greenhouse gas emissions, and serious zoonotic diseases (such as Q fever). I believe that the responsibility of the government to the workers, the local community, and the broader public, is to avoid such risks when possible.
Why not repurpose the operations of the Penitentiary Farm Program to plant-based agriculture which could provide fresh garden produce for prison kitchens and for donation to local food banks, while also building workers’ skills and community connection, and eliminating the risks associated with intensive animal farming. A prison farm that is not based on an intensive animal production system can serve the best interests of the inmates, the community, and the environment, and be strongly aligned with the values of compassion, respect, and responsibility.
For a detailed analysis, see the January 31, 2021 report “ Canada’s Proposed Prison Farm Program: Why it won’t work and what would work better” commissioned by Evolve Our Prison Farms.
Geraldine Lindley is a retired lawyer and a Director of CCFA. She lives in Toronto.