Re-opening Canada’s prison farms is just the first step

By Stan Stapleton, National President of the Union of Solicitor General Employees, as published in the Hill Times, July 4, 2016

Recently, Minister Goodale announced that he will launch a study on whether it’s possible to restore two of the former federal prison farms that are based in the Kingston area. The farms, which were run by the Correctional Service Canada, were renowned not only for their prize cattle but also for their innovative approach to correctional programming. Through work opportunities afforded by the farms’ day to day operations, up to 300 federal offenders were able to hone valuable life skills which increased their chance of employment once released. 

When the six farms in Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Ontario and New Brunswick were closed in 2010, a major campaign to save the farms was launched with the support of some of Canada’s most prominent authors and other cultural icons, as well as national labour unions, including USGE. While there is no doubt that the prospect of the Kingston farms re-opening is a promising development, the current government needs to assess in a more holistic way how Correctional Service Canada can better support the successful re-integration of federal offenders. 

This is because when the federal Conservative government introduced the Deficit Reduction Action Plan in 2012, the federal Correctional Service was not spared in the department-wide effort to meet aggressive deficit reduction targets by 2014. Despite the previous government’s reputation as being “tough on crime”, the federal agency had no choice but to take some dramatic measures. 

One of these was the decision to reduce the number of required visits/contacts that federal parole officers are mandated to have with high risk offenders living in the community. At the time, the logic was that these higher risk offenders, who were required to live in half way houses or federal residential facilities, could be seen less often because they were living in a community based facilities. 

This logic, however, was not shared among many front line staff. Community parole officers signaled their significant concern about the reduction in contact with federal offenders on parole given that these higher risk offenders often have the highest needs. Because of this, the provision of increased contact can help to increase their chances of becoming productive and law abiding citizens after many years in prison. 

Further, the regular communication between parole officers and federal offenders is focused on gauging the risk of a recently released offenders potentially committing other crimes. Spending less time with offenders on parole means fewer opportunities to assess risk. Nonetheless, the cuts to the frequency of contact rules went ahead. 

As a consequence, at the same time as hundreds of millions of dollars were being spent to build new facilities and retrofit existing prisons, some of the measures designed to ensure the safe and secure re-integration of federal offenders into the community were being reduced or eliminated. Apart from the changes in frequency of contact between federal parole officers and offenders on parole, correctional programs were overhauled, staff positions were left unfilled, and – increasingly – resources dedicated to easing the often abrupt transition of offenders from prison to life on the outside dried up. 

This meant that in more than a few cases, federal offenders with no family or community support were, and continue to be, discharged to homeless shelters rather than to supportive housing options. In 2015, funding from the Correctional Service for an internationally recognized program, Circles of Support and Accountability (COSA), which worked with convicted sex offenders in the community to reduce the risk of recidivism, was halted. 

Now that there is a new government in place, there is a significant opportunity to re-visit many of the changes that were made to the Correctional Service’s re-integration efforts. But in order for that to happen, there needs to be a rigorous analysis of the impact of these changes and an opportunity for those who directly facilitate the re-integration of offenders back into the community to share what they know. 

Owing – in part- to the previous government’s legacy, the fastest growing population in Canada’s federal prison system are women, including those with children. Moreover, the rate of incarceration among Canada’s Aboriginal peoples is hugely disproportionate to their representation in Canadian society. In western Canada, indigenous offenders account for over 60, sometimes 70 per cent, of those in federal prisons. 

For these reasons, it’s clear that it’s time for a more thorough assessment of how federal Corrections can be re-invigorated and re-envisioned. The public needs to be confident that the appropriate resources, programs and tools that federal offenders need to become law abiding and productive members of society are in place. 

The crucial insights that parole officers, program officers and others have garnered after years of working with offenders needs to be fully harnessed by the leadership at Correctional Service Canada. Otherwise, we potentially risk public safety and the prospects for successful re-integration of offenders. Given that it costs over $115,000 per year to incarcerate an offender, investing more resources into safely transitioning those who have demonstrated real potential back into the community is well worth the effort. 

So, while the newly announced consultation on the re-opening of the Kingston prison farms is an auspicious development for federal Corrections, it’s just a first step.