KINGSTON — Brian Martin has spent more than half his life in the correctional system, and the 52-year-old has dedicated himself to learning all he can. He’s taken courses in cooking, carpentry, welding, sewing, and upholstery through the Correctional Service of Canada (CSC). He figures he has more than 9,000 hours of plumbing work under his belt. And, now, he’s a trained farmer.
That’s because the Collins Bay Institution, in Kingston’s west end, is home once again to a sprawling, 160-hectare farm. Today, it’s largely empty save for some cows, beehives, and modest buildings. Soon, though, the fields will sprout soy and barley, a community garden will yield produce for the local food bank, and goats and cows will be bred. The venture is the result of a decade of activism and political pressure — but some who fought for the farm now oppose it.
Martin, who has been incarcerated since 1988 for second-degree murder, was originally housed in a maximum-security facility but was moved to the minimum-security Collins Bay. He’s one of six inmates working on the farm — by next year, that number is expected to increase to as many as 60. Over the last few months, Martin has been operating excavators, bulldozers, cultivators, and backhoes to prepare for the arrival of the animals. Inmates are paid anywhere between $5.25 and $6.90 per day, depending on their progress in the program. Six cows arrived in June, so Martin’s duties now include feeding and tending to the animals and taking care of the field.
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“Every skill that I have, I give thanks to Corrections. And I make sure everybody’s aware of that,” says Martin. “Without those skills, I don’t have anything.”
Federal penitentiaries have been home to farms since the 1950s, but such programs were cut by Stephen Harper’s Conservative government in 2009. At the time, the government said that too few former inmates were transitioning into the agricultural sector after their release. The decision caused an uproar — particularly in Kingston, which contained two prison farms, one of which was at Collins Bay. Critics said that the decision had been made hastily and without consultation and argued that farm work has rehabilitative value. When its 300 cows were removed from Collins Bay (then called Frontenac Institution) in August 2010, 14 protesters blocked the exit and were arrested. For the next eight years, prison-farm supporters held a vigil every Monday outside the institution.
Heading into the 2015 election, an advocacy group called Save Our Prison Farms secured promises from both the NDP and the Liberals to reopen the farms. In 2018, the Liberals announced that they had budgeted $4.3 million over five years to reinstate the farms at Collins Bay and at Joyceville, located roughly 20 kilometres north-east of Kingston.
But the move came in for its own share of criticism: the old farm program had cows producing milk for the prison population (changes made to CSC’s food-services guidelines no longer allow for that); the new one will house 1,000 dairy goats. It’s rumoured that these goats will service a $225 million Chinese-owned baby-formula factory scheduled to open in Kingston this fall — though CSC notes that no contracts have yet been signed. After pushback from Save Our Prison Farms, the government allowed for the addition of cattle: a small herd of dairy cows will be kept at Joyceville for milking, and bulls and elderly cows will be kept at Collins Bay for breeding and inmate training.
The farm is managed by CORCAN, a CSC program that offers employment and skills training for federal inmates, and employs offenders in construction work, furniture production, clothing and bedding manufacturing, and, once again, farming. “For CORCAN, it’s about employment skills,” says Chris Stein, CORCAN’s operations manager. “The more employment skills we can offer, the better it is for the organization, the better it is for the offenders, and ultimately, the community.”
Not everyone agrees. Calvin Neufeld, who once lived in an apartment overlooking the Collins Bay property, got involved in prison-farming activism in 2016. While he’s pleased to see the farms reopen, he is convinced that CSC is taking the wrong approach: he’s opposed to livestock farming in general on ethical and environmental grounds — and he’s uncomfortable with the idea of prison labour being used to benefit private corporations.
On a Tuesday in early July, Neufeld and a dozen others gather at the corner of the front lawn of Collins Bay. He and his mother, Franceen, have started a new advocacy group, called Evolve Our Prison Farms, which holds its own weekly vigils. They’ll continue, Neufeld says, until “prison farms do no harm.”
On the other side of the prison, away from the cars and reporters, Martin works with the cows, plows the field, and prepares himself for a possible life on the outside. He doesn’t know if or when he’ll get out, but he hopes there’ll be more farming in his future either way: he and his wife own a hectare of land just northwest of the institution.
“I’d like to have that chance to go home, if that’s possible,” he says. “If not, I’m going to continue trying and continue moving forward and continue helping on the farm.”
This is one in a series of stories about issues affecting eastern Ontario. It's brought to you with the assistance of Queen’s University.
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Correction: An earlier version of this story indicated that inmates are paid by the hour; in fact, they're paid by the day. TVO.org regrets the error.