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Prison farm closures imply farming irrelevant: NFU

Plans to shut down farm operations at six federal correctional facilities across Canada imply that the federal government considers farming and food production “outmoded and irrelevant,” the National Farmers Union says.

Media outlets last week reported that the Correctional Service of Canada (CSC) plans to close prison farms at Kingston, Ont., Dorchester, N.B., Stony Mountain, Man., Prince Albert, Sask., and near Innisfail, Alta., within the next couple of years.

Calling the move “short-sighted,” NFU president Stewart Wells said the move appears to be motivated by short-term financial gain, citing a 2007 federal report which noted that the property containing two prison farms to be closed at Kingston may be worth as much as $2 million on the real estate market.

Wells criticized CSC and federal Public Safety Minister Peter Van Loan as having claimed the prison farms no longer provide employable skills training to inmates “because the number of farms in Canada has declined.”

“This attitude by the government wrongly implies that farming does not require a considerable amount of skill and professionalism,” the NFU said in a release Thursday, “and also suggests that farming and food production itself is an outmoded and irrelevant activity.”

Both suggestions are “completely false,” the NFU said.

Not only do inmates gain technical and social skills from the farm program, but the prison farms also contribute a “considerable” quantity of locally-grown food to the institution and the surrounding community, Wells said.

“The loss of this locally-sourced food will increase the financial burden on taxpayers,” the NFU said.

According to CBC last week, the six farms in question employ about 300 inmates, out of a Canada-wide federal prison population of over 12,000 men and women. The farms also provided food for other prisons; the Kingston facilities, for example, produced eggs and milk.

“Rather than close the institutions and exacerbate the overcrowding and gang-related problems in the regular prison system, the CSC should expand and enhance the prison farms as a constructive alternative,” Wells said in the NFU’s release.

CBC last week quoted Craig Jones, executive director of the John Howard Society of Canada, as saying he wasn’t surprised to hear of CSC’s decision.

Prison farms, he told CBC, are “a 19th-century model” and the money spent to fund them would be better put to use focusing inmates on “more contemporary” skills and trades.

A 2007 report by a CSC review panel recommended that the agency “pay more attention to the attainment of higher educational levels and development of work skills and training to provide the offender with increased opportunities for employment in the community.”

“Employment-related skills are major factors in an offender’s ability to pursue a crime-free life,” CBC quoted CSC spokesperson Krista McGregor as saying.

But the NFU’s Wells, who farms at Swift Current, Sask., contended that the decision shows Ottawa “appears to have written off agriculture as a fundamental cornerstone of the Canadian economy.”

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