Frequently Asked Questions
Many of Canada’s prisons have large tracts of farmland, acquired over the course of Canada’s colonial history. Until 2010, Canada had six federally funded prison farms producing food for prisoners. These were mixed operations of crops, vegetables, and animal agriculture (meat, milk, egg production) before they were shut down by the Harper Conservative government.
Canada’s longstanding federal prison farm program was shut down by the Harper Conservative government between 2009-2011 because the program was not financially sustainable, losing $4 million annually, and the traditional agricultural model did not teach employable skills. Fewer than 1% of released offenders went on to gain employment in agriculture.
In 2015, the Trudeau Liberals made a campaign promise to reopen prison farms. After election in 2016, the new government began a public consultation to determine what model the new prison farms would adopt, while at the same time investing millions of dollars into the construction of a Chinese infant formula factory between the two Kingston prisons (Collins Bay and Joyceville) where the prison farms would be located. In 2018, it was announced that the new prison farms would be industrial goat dairy, reportedly to supply this facility.
Canada has invested millions of dollars at the federal and provincial level to attract the Chinese company Feihe International to build an infant formula factory in Kingston, Ontario under the name Canada Royal Milk. The facility is situated between the two prisons where the prison farm operations are being established. Since prison farms can no longer feed prisoners due to the new Food Service Modernization initiative adopted by Correctional Service of Canada, prison farms must now supply external markets. The government is building up Canada’s goat dairy industry to supply the Feihe facility, which will ship 85-100% of its product to China. Using the prison farms for this purpose presented a solution to the paired problems of reintroducing prison dairy operations for external markets and supporting a multi-million-dollar infant formula investment.
Goats were selected as the core operation for the reopened prison farms in Kingston Ontario because of the “looming demand” for goat’s milk to supply the Feihe International infant formula factory, and because goat dairy is not restricted by the same quota system as cow dairy. Feihe needs 75 million litres of goat milk from approximately 140,000 or 150,000 goats to make their plant operate, which vastly exceeds Canada’s entire nationwide supply (55 million litres). If Feihe is unable to source a sufficient supply of goat milk, the company intends to build its own 70,000-head milking unit in Ontario.
The definition of a factory farm is “a system of rearing livestock using intensive methods, by which poultry, pigs, or cattle are confined indoors under strictly controlled conditions.” This is an exact description of the central component of the new prison farm model: up to 2000 goats intensively farmed in a fully indoor operation. Goats are not suited to Canadian climates (their natural environment would be hot and dry) and are susceptible to a wide range of disease, making a controlled indoor facility the only viable option for an operation of this magnitude. The magnitude of the operation is an effort to gain an “economy of scale” advantage since goat dairy is otherwise not profitable; according to government statistics, a litre of goat’s milk costs $1.30 to produce and sells for $1.09.
When prison farms were shut down in 2010, it sparked community resistance as hundreds of people protested under “Save Our Prison Farms” banners. Protesters included people from all walks of life, from farmers to food activists, nuns, and prison abolitionists. Out of this history Evolve Our Prison Farms emerged in 2016 when the Liberal government began seeking input into possibilities for the restored prison farm program. What started as a small group of prison farm activists and academics has since grown into a national justice movement with thousands of supporters across Canada calling for an ethical and environmentally sustainable approach. Our supporters include many dedicated Save Our Prison Farms activists who share our vision for a no-kill sanctuary model of animal-assisted therapy, ideally involving the descendants of the former Pen Herd cows.
Animal-assisted therapy (AAT) is a type of therapy that involves animals as a form of treatment. This can take many forms, from emotional support or service animals to canine or equine therapy programs. Many farmed animal sanctuaries and other animal rescues incorporate therapeutic programs for at-risk youth, autistic youth, ex-prisoners, or military personnel suffering from PTSD, and are highly successful at improving social, emotional, and cognitive functioning. Animal-assisted therapy is the ideal model for incorporating animals into prison programming.
There is growing evidence that interactions with animals, under the right conditions, can indeed have therapeutic benefits. However, none of this evidence comes from animal agriculture. Animal agriculture creates what sociologists refer to as the “care-kill” paradox, in which humans are trained on the one hand to provide care to animals, while at the same time being trained to view them as products whom it is okay to harm, coerce and kill. This can lead to moral ambivalence, unease, cognitive dissonance and psychological disorder – a widely-documented finding. In the context of a prisoner rehabilitation and therapy program, it is inappropriate and unnecessary to incorporate industry practices of forced insemination, removal of offspring, and slaughter. A no-kill sanctuary model of animal care provides all the benefits of animal therapy without exposing prisoners to potential trauma and emotional desensitization.
No. Like all evolution, it’s simply a matter of time and pressure. Corrections Canada has not yet begun constructing the industrial goat dairy (currently planned for 2020). There have been many delays and obstacles in bringing this plan into effect. Goats are not scheduled to arrive until 2020 with milking operations to begin in 2021. There is still time to convince our government and Correctional Service of Canada to reverse course in favour of a more ethical and sustainable approach. Even if the current plan goes into effect, it could quickly fail for any number of reasons: mounting China-Canada tensions; Chinese boycotts of Canadian products; the possibility of Feihe deciding it’s in their best interest not to purchase prison-sourced milk for its infant formula products; the challenging logistics of producing goat dairy and lack of industry experience; prisoner non-participation; and/or public opposition against the use of prison labour to factory farm animals for foreign markets.
No and no. Much of our support comes from animal activists and veg folk, who readily understand why animal agriculture is not appropriate or ideal for prisoner therapy, but our supporters are equally omnivorous folk, Liberals, Conservatives, Greens, farmers, prison abolitionists, environmentalists and academics. Even the most devout “carnist” can – and frequently does – acknowledge that training prisoners to kill in a prison slaughterhouse or inserting insemination guns into female animals is contrary to rehabilitative goals. And while there would be significant health and environmental benefits if prisons were to emphasize plant-based foods, as Canada’s Food Guide now requires them to do, this has nothing to do with Evolve Our Prison Farms.
Evolve Our Prison Farms is laser-focussed on the issue of prison farms, advocating the best possible model for prisoner rehabilitation, and defending prisoner justice, animal justice, and environmental justice in the context of this federal program.
Prisoners who have spoken out in defense of the former prison farm program are now beginning to condemn the new prison farm model. Prisoners who have passionately credited their personal transformation to the therapeutic benefits of working with cows on the old prison farms are warning that the new prison farms will no longer offer these benefits. What was once one-on-one care of a handful of cows in fields will now be replaced by pushing buttons and hooking up machines to large batches of goats, cycle after cycle, in a fully indoor facility. A 2018 survey of 150 prisoners at Joyceville Institution in Kingston found that 75% of prisoners voted in favour of animal sanctuary over a dairy operation – before it was revealed that the new prison dairy model would be a goat factory farm. Many prisoners have written letters and articles expressing their support for the vision advocated by Evolve Our Prison Farms.
Experts in every relevant field – law, criminology, social work, climate science, labour studies and animal therapy – have expressed support for an ethical and environmentally sustainable approach to Canada’s prison farm program as proposed by Evolve Our Prison Farms. Equally, these experts and many prominent individuals including David Suzuki, Margaret Atwood, Fred Penner, Dan Piraro, Ivan Zinger and Howard Sapers have expressed concern over the problems associated with prisoners factory farming animals for a multinational corporation.
The possibilities for an ethical and environmentally sustainable prison farm program are endless, limited only by imagination and political will. Evolve Our Prison Farms proposes a model of innovative plant-based agriculture (ideally producing food for prisoners and piloting green technologies and techniques) while offering animal-assisted therapy through a no-kill sanctuary model of care as other prisons have done. If prison farms can no longer feed prisoners, then the program should seek external markets that incorporate a social justice element. For example: generating produce for northern Indigenous communities; supplying hospitals, military bases or food banks; boosting the booming plant-protein industry which currently can’t meet market demand; or growing crops with applications in bioenergy, biofibre, or biomedicine.
Prison farms can contribute to local food security and agricultural innovation through labour-intensive organic permaculture and agroforestry, fruit and nut tree plantations, and production of nutrient-dense vegetables, legumes, grains and seeds. Fundamentally, prison farms should prioritize ecological sustainability, human health, food security, and fiscal responsibility. They should provide work opportunities for prisoners that offer education, life skills, and job skills relevant for reintegration into a society that is increasingly concerned with issues of climate change, public health and animal welfare, and where job opportunities continue to grow rapidly developing green economies.
Follow the unfolding story on Facebook. Join the conversation, Like, comment and share; the more you engage, the more effective our advocacy. Contact your local MP and write to Minister Ralph Goodale. Join our Postcard Campaign. Contact us with your stories, perspectives or suggestions. Contact any journalists you may know. We need numbers, we need awareness, we need critical questions and investigative journalism. We need Canadians to care deeply about what’s happening with Canada’s prison farms and the injustice this program will perpetrate against prisoners, animals and environment. For every conceivable reason, it’s time to Evolve Our Prison Farms.