Stroke a cat. Pet a dog. Groom a horse. Observe any creature, even fish swimming in a tank.
These activities have one thing in common: They all lower blood pressure, relax us and make us feel better about being alive. We are hard-wired to connect with our fellow creatures, and pet owners in this country - who spend $4-billion a year on their animal companions - know it.
The animals tended by prisoners in the barns at Frontenac Institution in Kingston do not rank high on the chosen list of animal companions. I am speaking of cows and chickens.
A funny thing about chickens. Susan Orlean's recent piece in The New Yorker ("The It Bird: The Return of the Back-yard Chicken") must have struck a chord with a producer at TV Ontario, for there she was on Oct. 12 being interviewed by Steve Paikin on his current-affairs program, The Agenda . Ms. Orlean notes that city-dwellers all over North America are going back to what used to be the norm before the 1950s. Raising chickens, she says, is "a declaration of self-sufficiency, a celebration of handwork and a push-back from a numbing and disconnected big-box life."
When I lived in the country, we had chickens. I found it soothing to watch them scratch in the dirt; Ms. Orlean likewise. I liked collecting still warm eggs, liked seeing chicks peeping and huddled under a heat lamp in the spring and hated the task of slaughtering the oversized meat birds a few months later. For me, chickens led to ducks, a cat, dogs, a horse. I live in the city now, but I was stamped by my experience nurturing animals.
Some federal inmates know the feeling. There are six prison farms across Canada - at Bowden in Alberta, at Riverbend in Saskatchewan, at Rockwood in Manitoba, at Westmorland in New Brunswick, and two in Kingston (Frontenac and Pittsburgh Institutions). The Harper government plans to close them all by 2011.
No city in Canada has the prison population we do in Kingston, and it's here that the response to the proposed closing of prison farms has been most vigorous. A debate held at St. Lawrence College last March drew about 250 people and letters to the editor of local newspapers continue to decry the move. The National Farmers' Union, the Canadian Labour Congress, the Public Service Alliance, the Council of Canadians and the Sisters of Providence of St. Vincent de Paul all protest the closing of prison farms. A national coalition of objectors, Save Our Farms, has formed to continue the battle. On the SOF website is a letter from an inmate at Riverbend who declares, "The farm has saved my life."
NOT EASILY CAPTURED ON LEDGERS
Volunteering with the John Howard Society in the summer of 2008 as part of my research for a book, I got a taste of both Frontenac and the prison next to it, Collins Bay Institution. I remember being inside the latter's hot and high-walled yard devoid of any living thing, and the crackling tension that pervaded the medium-security jail. Frontenac, on the other hand, is minimum-security. I didn't actually get to the barns, but I remember staring out over rolling green fields - right in the middle of the city. Frontenac may well be the largest urban farm in Canada and it represents some inmates' last stop before walking out the prison gates.
The Harper government wants to close prison farms for several stated reasons. One is that few inmates who work in the farm program actually go on to farm, once released.
Well, of course. An ex-convict needs capital to buy land and farm machinery, and where is he to find that? A prisoner who has worked on the land and with animals leaves jail with something not easily captured on ledgers, something that most prisons are hard pressed to provide: the beginnings of groundedness and a sense of peace, perhaps even a feeling of a job well done.
Wayne Easter, a long-time farmer and a former solicitor-general who was in charge of our prisons, was on CBC Radio's The Current on Oct. 6 as part of a panel to discuss the closing of prison farms. He counters the government's contention that these operations are a $4-million annual drain on the system. (The figure is from Corrections Canada, which refuses to divulge the accounting.) Mr. Easter noted that since the food produced by those same farms is worth almost $3-million a year (another government figure), the savings are slim.