The announced return of the animals to prisoner rehabilitation farms in the Kingston area was an exciting victory for many in the eastern Ontario farming community.
Farmers, and other community activists, had worked hard, protested, and protested some more over years to bring the prison farms back.
The farm was eliminated eight years ago by the Stephen Harper Conservative government in the name of efficiency and a focus on so-called more valuable skills. The numbers would have rightly told them that there were few jobs available for farm owners and primary labourers because technology continues to increase farming efficiency.
What they missed is that there is a starving market for agricultural workers across the industry.
The farms will have a herd of milking goats, but also, after intense lobbying, a herd of 60 dairy cows. Prison farm supporters hold strong emotional links to the return of the cows because many are, and were, dairy farmers and purchased and have safeguarded the high-quality genetic merit cows that were part of the former prison farm. We’ll see if the government has any interest in bringing back cows that were part of the original herd. It doesn’t make sense financially or practically, but it would certainly have some value for historical continuity.
Working with animals also has an intrinsic value that doesn’t show up on hard skills surveys.
Those of us who have had the privilege of working with large animals know the emotional value that comes with caring for them. There’s a serenity in a well-cared-for barn, especially in the early morning or the late evening.
The animals teach you things that don’t come as easily from human interaction. There’s responsibility, empathy, caring and the opportunity to give and get affection that comes with fewer caveats than negotiating affection with humans. You learn to work with different personalities, as animals respond differently to situations. The animals don’t judge you harshly.
These are opportunities in low supply in prison and serve as reasons why former inmates valued the program. Also of importance is the chance to produce something that nourishes others.
I expect these are the values of the program that prompted prison farm activists to fight so long for the return of the prison farms. They are also the emotional benefits in animal care for both humans and animals that rights activists have difficulty fathoming.
Shortly after I posted a story on the prison farms to our Farmtario website, I received an email from a member of an activist organization expressing concern that the media was missing the real story — that people who had been convicted of crimes like sexual assault and murder would then be relearning those behaviours by being responsible for artificial animal breeding and sending animals for slaughter.
This interaction shows the great chasm of experience and distance between the realities of people in our society. The passion of the activists working to return animals to the prisoner experience was based on a fervent belief that having prisoners work with animals would be good for the prisoners from a skills development, rehabilitation and mental health perspective. My experience says that would all be true.
European research we featured in a previous Farmtario shows that children raised in an environment that includes caring for animals have more mental health resiliency as adults.
However, although I didn’t speak with the man who sent me the email, you could tell by the urgency in the writing that he also holds his beliefs as fervently as the farmers and activists lobbying for a return of the prison farms.
I’m not going to argue one perspective over the other. It’s a long and usually futile process. Arguing isn’t the place to start. Bridging this animal care/animal rights gap starts with walking in other people’s shoes and keeping our minds open. That doesn’t happen often enough.