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In February, the Correctional Service of Canada confirmed that it will close six prison farms that have, over many years, provided thousands of inmates with useful exposure to honest labour. The penitentiary service has operated prison farms for 150 years, since before Canada was a country. Why close them now? It wasn't the economics of the farms, which normally made a profit or came close to making a profit. (The farms were obliged, in fact, to operate as profit-making enterprises.)

The official reason was nicely expressed in this damning observation: "Fewer than 1 per cent of released inmates," the bureaucracy said, "end up in agriculture."

It must be noted that this kind of argument serves bureaucracies well. Fewer than 1 per cent of students ever spoke Latin as a second language. It was therefore reasonable to drop it from the curriculum. In fact, the purpose of Latin was to learn the origins of our own language, and to experience history at the same time. The purpose of prison farms was not to produce farmers. It was to produce food for prisoners - an eminently worthwhile objective that the farms consistently met.

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Oddly, the prison farms succeeded only because the federal government permitted them to operate outside the law, a morally dubious proposition when working with accomplished miscreants. In the entire country, the government uniquely exempted criminals from supply management, the system that requires farmers to buy licences to milk cows.

It now costs 10 times as much, per cow, to buy the licence as it does to buy the cow. An inmate who wanted to enter small-scale dairy farming after his release from prison would need a quarter of a million dollars for the right to milk 10 cows, and another million to buy a farm. This is one reason why fewer than 1 per cent of ex-inmates has chosen farming as a post-prison career. This standard, by the way, hasn't changed significantly for a generation (during which time the prison service was proud of its farms) and career openings in farming have been falling for four generations.

The first two prison farms to go (Pittsburgh and Frontenac) are in Ontario, near Kingston. At the Frontenac farm, 60 inmates tended 130 cows that produced 4,000 litres of milk a day for consumption in prisons throughout the region and three prisons in dairy-rich Quebec. The farm was deemed one of the best dairy operations in the country.

Without cows grazing in the fields, the federal government will find it easier - we now discover - to build super-prisons in the years ahead. In a Globe and Mail report last week, Public Safety Minister Peter Van Loan conceded that the government - the Conservative government - anticipates building a number of prisons in which maximum-security, medium-security and minimum-security prisoners will be jailed in single institutions, as prisons are euphemistically called.

The government proposes, in other words, to centralize - or, rather, to centralize yet again. This is an enormous mistake. Because prisons notoriously operate as schools for crime, the government should build many of them, all as small and as dispersed as possible. One can imagine tiny minimum-security prisons as integral parts of Corrections Canada offices across the country. One can imagine more of them as integral parts of police departments across the country. The theory is simple. Low-risk prisoners would benefit more by contact with law-abiding people than with criminals.

By building super-prisons, the government says it will save money in administrative costs. This is probably true but irrelevant. If you can justify super-prisons on the basis of fiscal efficiency, why not build one huge prison and put all the criminals in the same place? You can easily feed 20,000 prisoners from the same kitchen. Think of the savings potential in a veritable metropolis of miscreants.

In a penitentiary environment, though, you can't lay off the inmates when the farm jobs disappear. You can't lay off the penitentiary workers, either. Corrections Canada has guaranteed that none in the service will ever suffer hardship should he or she become redundant. In a contractual provision called "Duty to Accommodate," the service promises to replace any lost job with another position equal in pay and equal in status.

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In The Globe report, Mr. Van Loan denied that any link existed between the government's decision to scrap the prison farms now and its pending decision to build larger prisons. Yet he also indicated that the farm fields will be rented out to farmers. "It wouldn't be prudent to dispose of the land," he said, "if you may have potential plans in the future to build super regional prisons."

Indeed. In the short term, rather than feed themselves, prisoners will be fed - expensively and passively - by supply-managed farmers. In the longer term, they will join the herd.

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