TORONTO — Public consultations carried out by the federal government suggest there is "strong support" for reopening prison farms that were shut down across the country six years ago.
The Liberal government is currently carrying out a feasibility study on penitentiary farms and is looking in particular at the possibility of reopening two in the Kingston, Ont., area.
As part of that study, the Correctional Service of Canada conducted an online survey between June 2 and Aug. 4, inviting Canadians to weigh in on re-establishing the farms.
The results of that consultation — which drew responses from 5,890 respondents — were released publicly on Wednesday.
"There seems to be large recognition of the value of institutional agribusiness and thus, a strong support for re-establishing penitentiary farms," the consultation report released by CSC said.
The 2010 closure of the country's prison farms by the then-Conservative government — six in total operating at institutions in New Brunswick, Ontario, Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta — was highly controversial.
Opponents argued the decision was made without properly considering the essential skills the farms taught participating inmates. There was also criticism that local community members had not been adequately consulted.
The CSC's consultation on the farms found that the main factors supporting reopening the farms included the need to help the rehabilitation of inmates and the positive impact the farms could have in communities.
Specifically, 95 per cent of respondents "strongly agreed" or "agreed" that an institutional agribusiness initiative would contribute to rehabilitation, the consultation report said.
Survey respondents also identified important conditions that would need to be in place for the farms to succeed, including partnerships with local communities and outreach programs, it said.
The report also highlighted what it called "valuable comments" from some respondents who participated in the consultation.
"Working with cows and chickens helped in that I had to get up very early no matter what, as we are on the animal schedules," one respondent identified as a former inmate wrote. "I also learned to respect the guards who also work with the animals and see them as living beings and not enemies."
"I have known very hardened inmates who have experienced a personality change due to their experience working with animals on a penitentiary farm," another respondent wrote. "Employment skills must also include the soft skills such as empathy."
In addition to the online consultation, the CSC also held a town hall in Kingston in August on the issue of prison farms and released a separate report Wednesday on the feedback it received from that effort.
It found nearly all of the approximately 300 people who attended were strong supporters of the re-establishment of at least some form of penitentiary farm.
"The comments of the town hall participants were strongly supportive of penitentiary farm based rehabilitation and employment programs, both animal and plant based," the report on the town hall said.
"This opens the door for the government to design agricultural and agri-food programs based on a rigorous investigation of the potential production options and of best practices in the incorporation of agriculture related rehabilitation and training programming."
Prison farms had operated in Canada since the 1880s until they were shuttered.
Inmates who worked on the farms were employed in farm maintenance, feeding cattle, operating milking machinery, cleaning barns, raking and bailing hay, plowing and harvesting corn, operating grain mills and trucks, tilling the land and planting crops, Correctional Services Canada has said.
In the 2009-2010 fiscal year, 716 inmates were employed in the prison farm program, CSC said.
Results of the online consultation on the prison farms, as well as feedback from the town hall in Kingston, will be used to make a decision on penitentiary farms in the future.