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Canada Former protester joins government panel on reopening prison farms

Wishful, a Holstein Hereford cow, joins its owner Jeff Peters (left), the vice-president of Local 316 of the National Farmers Union, at the entrance to Collins Bay and Frontenac Institutions on Feb. 22, 2010 protesting the closure of prison farms.

Ian MacAlpine/The Canadian Press

The government put Jeff Peters in jail three times for protesting against the closing of two Kingston-area prison farms.

On Friday, the government put him on an advisory panel that will guide the Correctional Service of Canada in reopening said farms.

The humour is not lost on him.

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"Seven years ago, we couldn't get any dialogue going with the government," the prison-farm activist said, taking a momentary break from bringing in his own crops. "Getting asked for advice now is a bit ironic."

The advisory panel announcement puts the Correctional Service one step closer to reversing a widely criticized decision to shutter farms based at Joyceville and Collins Bay prisons in 2010.

Six other advisers will join Mr. Peters on the panel. Their first meeting is scheduled for June. The goal is to work with CORCAN, the Correctional Service's employment and skills training division, on reopening the two farms and devising a business plan to reflect the modern job market. The previous Conservative government closed the farms, saying they were too expensive, at about $4-million a year, and taught outdated skills.

"For a guy who grew up on a farm, that was an insult I could never forget," Mr. Peters said. "Telling someone that their life-long profession that feeds the world was meaningless, well, I vowed then and there to make them eat their words."

Critics countered that the Conservative rationale ignored the therapeutic benefits of the program. "There are a bunch of benefits beyond farming that can be gained by the renewal of the prison farms, like entrepreneurship, sense of self-worth, responsibility, work habits – all that kind of stuff that is really important," said Catherine Latimer, executive director of the John Howard Society of Canada, and another panel appointee.

Mr. Peters wants the farms to feed a growing consumer appetite for artisanal cheese. As well, inmates could learn to install solar panels, biogas devices and other renewable-energy systems, he said.

In August, 2010, demonstrators blockaded cattle trucks removing the herd from Collins Bay Institution. Police arrested 24 people, including Mr. Peters.

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Several protesters refused to take a plea deal and were found guilty of attempted mischief.

The protests spawned a movement to buy up prison-farm cattle through the Pen Farm Herd Co-op. More than 180 members bought $300 shares, raising enough money to buy 23 head. Today, the herd stands at 33 animals. The Correctional Service has no timeline for the potential opening of the farms. Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale said in a statement that the panel will "determine the best way ahead for re-establishing penitentiary farms."

If it were entirely up to Mr. Peters, he would be trucking cattle back to prison the summer of 2018. "They're eager to return to prison," he said of the herd. "There's still work to be done, no doubt, but we're very optimistic."

Howard Sapers, Canada's federal prison ombudsman, speaks with Affan Chowdhry about the government's recent decision not to implement any of the recommended changes from the Ashley Smith inquest Globe and Mail Update
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