Cows at Jeff Peters’s farm, north of Kingston, Ontario. He is one of eight farmers who, for more than five years, have hosted the remnants of the dairy herd that once lived on a farm at an 85-year-old prison complex.
By IAN AUSTEN
February 18, 2016
KINGSTON, Ontario — It is easy to pick out the short-timers from the lifers on Jeff Peters’s beef and pork farm. Clad in black and white, the 14 Holstein dairy cows stand in sharp contrast to the farm’s regular herd of chocolate brown Limousin beef cattle in the open winter barns.
The dairy cows are ex-cons of a sort, and look the part in their old-time prisoner colors. Mr. Peters is one of eight Ontario farmers who, for more than five years, have hosted the remnants of the dairy herd that once lived on a farm at an 85-year-old prison complex here. And for most of that time, the farmers, along with hundreds of local residents and a few celebrities, have been fighting to reopen the farm and send the cows home.
Years of weekly protests and fund-raisers had led nowhere. In October, however, the Liberal Party defeated the Conservative government, which had closed the farm. While the new government has yet to make any firm commitments, the new Liberal member of Parliament from the Kingston area campaigned to bring farming back to to the prison. Among Mr. Peters and the rest of the protesters, there is a growing feeling that their efforts will finally be rewarded.
On a recent winter day, in a barn shared with a handful of noisy chickens, Mr. Peters fed one of the newest members of the prison farm herd, Terry, with an oversize baby bottle.
“I really like them when they’re that size,” he said. “So she’s going to go back to prison someday. That’s a sad thing to say to a baby: ‘You’re going to end up in prison.’ But that’s where she belongs in our case, that’s for sure.”
Various farms that are part of the prison complex, the Collins Bay Institution — whose headquarters are in a vaguely chateau-style building topped with an incongruously festive red roof — have operated since its opening in 1930. In 1962, the Collins Bay Farm Annex, later named the Frontenac Institution, was established for the rehabilitation of low-risk inmates. The complex is now home to 551 prisoners in varying security levels.
Over the 48 years the farm was running, prisoners swept stalls and fed the cows and chickens, and many stayed up all night to help birth calves. In the farm’s final years, an inmate-run processing and packaging operation provided the milk and eggs for all of the federal prisons in Ontario and Quebec, as well as some provincial jails.
Why the Conservatives closed it and five other prison farms across Canada in 2010 was never entirely clear, beyond some disputed arguments over the cost. The move followed other steps, like banning prisoners from holding pizza nights they had paid for themselves, that seemed intended to eliminate any notion that life in prison was soft. The minister responsible for prisons at the time, Vic Toews, declared the farm programs ineffective at rehabilitating prisoners. “Less than 1 percent learned any skills that were relevant,” he told reporters.
For Mr. Peters, the minister’s dismissal of farming was a rallying cry.
“That was an insult that stuck,” Mr. Peters, 64, said over the large dining room table in his timber-walled farmhouse in South Frontenac, about a mile north of Kingston. “From then on, I was determined to right what we thought was a real wrong.”
Others in this city of about 160,000 on Lake Ontario, best known for being home to five prisons, limestone buildings and Queen’s University, were also upset. The 835-acre farm site is now surrounded by strip malls, auto dealerships and suburban housing developments, and many residents feared that the farmland would become more of the same.
Groups that worked with prisoners, like the Sisters of Providence, a Roman Catholic order, joined in a campaign to protect what they believed was an effective form of rehabilitation. Many protesters found the closing shortsighted.
“Even people I knew who had been small C or capital C conservatives said, ‘This doesn’t make sense; closing the prison farm doesn’t make any sense,’ ” said Dianne Dowling, who has a beef and dairy farm on an island in Lake Ontario. “Some of them liked the idea that the inmates were doing actual physical work to help pay for the system.”
Pat Kincaid spent 47 years in prison for various crimes, and has been out for seven — a stretch he attributes to the three and a half years he spent working with the cows on the farm. He started sweeping out their stalls and gradually gained more autonomy, working from sunup to sundown most days. He remembers his elation when one calf, apparently stillborn in the middle of night, eventually began breathing.
“The cows taught me patience; the cows taught me responsibility,” Mr. Kincaid, 64, said. “They taught me how to care about somebody without them backstabbing me.”
Mr. Kincaid now works as a caretaker. He said, jokingly, that if the prison farm reopened, “I’ll rob a bank and sit there to wait for the cops so I can go back into Frontenac.”
The initial protests concluded with the unsuccessful two-day blockade of the trucks brought to take the cows to auction and the arrests of about two dozen people on charges of attempted criminal mischief. Shifting tactics, the protesters formed a cooperative to buy the prison farm cows, with the hope that they could be returned one day.
Among those buying shares, at 300 Canadian dollars apiece, about $220, were Conrad M. Black, the Canadian-born former press baron — who has became something of a prisoners’ rights advocate after serving 37 months for obstruction of justice — and the Canadian writer Margaret Atwood. The co-op raised enough money to buy 23 cows.
Since the closing, Mr. Peters has taken in pregnant cows, calves and cows otherwise not giving milk. The milking cows have been distributed among farmers who, under Canada’s tightly controlled dairy system, hold quotas to produce milk. Between the sales of newborn bulls, deaths and births (new calves are named after protesters who were arrested), the herd now numbers 29.
A government official recently toured the former farm at Collins Bay.
“We understand the value of the prison farm program and believe that such programs can be very helpful to promoting rehabilitation, empathy, skills training and ultimately public safety,” Ralph Goodale, the minister of public safety, wrote in an email. “We will be evaluating the cost and the feasibility of reopening the program.”
For their part, the protesters have promised to continue their campaign until the cows come home. Every Monday since the cows left in August 2010, a handful of supporters have strung up banners made from discarded sheets at the Collins Bay entrance and waved placards at the constant stream of traffic on the main road out front.
Dorothy Krawetz, a local writer with no connection to farming or the prison, stood there on a windy and cold January night. She calculated that it was her 280th Monday night outside the prison.
“It’s hard to have had hope for so long; it’s hard to trust the government,” she said over the din of passing vehicles’ friendly horns. “I hope the Liberals reinstate the farm, I really do, because they’ve helped us so much in the past, before it was dismantled. They’ve been our biggest support politically. But I’m kind of used to being let down by the government.”