In February 2009, Canada’s Public Safety Minister and the country’s Correctional Service announced a planned closure of all six of the prison farms owned by the people of Canada and operated by CORCAN – the branch of the Correctional Service that operates the farm rehabilitation programs which also provide employment training to inmates. The excellent syndicated Canadian radio show Deconstructing Dinner, which covers the local food movement, detailed all of this in its July 2nd show, and it’s a fascinating listen.

The proposed closure is a move that’s spawned a national grassroots movement to block the action, Save Our Farms.

Why close the farms, Mr. Minister? Because, he explains, they’ve lost $4 million (doesn’t that sound like the cost of a training program, though?) and, worse, prison farms are training people in skills that are 50 years behind the times – growing food by hand, milking cows, and such. This guy apparently has no idea what’s on the horizon for food production, and prefers the model with the hydroponic aquabots tending to seas of floating produce or something.

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Never mind that Canada’s prison farm infrastructures are often relied on by small private farms nearby, that they supply cheap fresh food to large institutions, and the fact that the inmates interviewed in the story told of enjoying the farm work and testified to its great therapeutic effects and a desire to continue this work after release. Add to the picture Canada’s farm succession problems and its burgeoning local agriculture revival and one would seem to be mad to close these farms. The one in Kingston, Ontario, is likely the largest urban farm in Canada, a last reservoir of open land in a sprawling city.

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Where the prisons plan to get their fresh food from post-CORCAN is my question, and rumors abound that the farms will either be privatized or worse, sold for development at a profit. But what a loss that would be: Canada’s prison farms sit on some of the most desirable agricultural land in their regions and many are close to urban areas.  And there’s an ironic twist: Canada’s prison farms are an international model and have been recently toured by delegations from Japan, Russia, and New Zealand, the latter hoping to take its own prison farms organic.

In the US, prison farms are also a source of tilth and production. A quick search turns up items like these two:

Nashville prison saves $150K composting all food waste; grows 100 acres of veggies.

And then there’s New Jersey, whose largest farmer is its prison system, managed by AgriIndustries – ‘a self-supporting operation without appropriated funds. Annual revenues total approximately $11.5 million, with substantial savings to all users. The departments of Corrections, Human Services, and Military and Veterans Affairs, as well as the Juvenile Justice Commission, utilize products from AgriIndustries.’

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Their site also says that their operations ‘utilize and train about 100 inmates daily in all areas of food production technology,’ and that, (surprisingly, to me), ‘the food production industry is the largest employer in New Jersey,’ and that ‘inmates receive training and experience that may qualify them to gain employment when they leave the prison system.’

If that last bit is true, it’s another in a long list of reasons why these rehabilitative programs ought to be championed and remain integral to prisons. It’s just plain healing to grow and care for things, and we are going to need a lot more people, with criminal records or not, that know how to do that in the near future.