On the way back from Ottawa and the Writers’ Union AGM, I stopped in Kingston, where the Save Our Prison Farms organization was having a rally, a march, and a spot of peaceful civil disobedience, as a protest against the Federal Government’s secretive, blinkered, ideological, and weird decision to shut down all of Canada’s prison farms – that help feed prisoners, that provide training, and especially that allow prisoners to learn how to work with other beings and with other human beings. As Sister Pauline Lally said, why “correct” something that is already working?
The enthusiastic group (1000 +) gathered in Sydenham Street United Church, and heard speeches –see their website – and music – see their website for that as well. One of the speeches was about peaceful civil disobedience: we all promised not to get too rowdy. Then, accompanied by kids dressed as sheep and cows, babies in strollers, dogs on leashes, Stormy the Donkey, a tractor pulling a hay wagon, high school students carrying banners, golden oldies like me, and everyone in between – all ages, all political stripes, all interested in food and where it comes from –Kingston has a string local-food and community-food movement – and all alert to the land grabs and misguided ideas about “correction” that are no doubt behind all this – we marched to Correctional Institutes and duct-taped our sign and letter to the door. Stormy the Donkey did not kick or bite me or anyone else, though he did let fly with a few indignant brays. He might not have been too sure about why he was there, but everyone else was.
Save Our Prison Farms Speech
Thank you for being here today. It’s unfortunate that we have to be here at all. If there were a sane, thoughtful, and respectful government policy on federal prison farms – and one that serves the best interests of the Canadian taxpayer and of our society, and one in tune with the systems we will need as we move further into the era of an already changed and changing climate – we would not need to be conducting this event. As it is, I’d like to run through the reasons why I believe the Conservative Government’s closing of our prison farms is not respectful, not in the best interests of Canadians, and not in tune with the more disaster-prone climate we have entered.
First, you are entitled to ask yourself the question – What’s she doing here? She’s just a writer – a member of what is now often termed “the entertainment business.” I guess that depends on what you find entertaining. Myself, I thought that my two adventure-packed, joke-ridden novels that revolve around the almost total annihilation of the human race were pretty entertaining, though not everyone found them the laugh riot that I did. But I did have to research the carrying capacity of the earth and the general rules of biological organisms – that would include your food — and the likely effects of climate change on these things – just as I had to research prison conditions and penal policies of the 19th C – right here in Kingston, for my penitentiary-setting novel, Alias Grace.
For all of these novels, I had some helpful personal background. I was brought up with vegetable gardens – it was the war, and food self-sufficiency was important — and, much later, Graeme Gibson and I had a big vegetable and fruit garden ourselves, when we ran a working farm near Alliston. When I say “working farm,” I mean we worked hard. I don’t mean we made a profit. That nine-year-long enterprise taught both of us a lot of respect for farming and farmers. Anyone who’s ever come near such a hands-on experience knows that food doesn’t appear out of the air done up in plastic wrap.
Which brings me to my first point: The government policy is disrespectful. It is disrespectful to farmers and farming. It implies that the skills learned in prison farm programs and the experience gained are unimportant. But it’s always a mistake to diss farmers. Money is an entirely human invention – a mental construct that has value only if we think it does, and that can therefore vanish in a flash when the systems it serves melt down – but food is a basic. The body can survive without money, but it doesn’t last long without food. King Midas wished that everything he touched might turn to gold, and his wish was granted – but then he starved to death. The prison farms program has the support of farmers and farmers’ organizations across Canada, because they know the value of farming. They resent being told that their profession is worthless, as a profession. So: change and improve the prison farms. Expand them to provide more local food to communities. Teach new skills, for which there are increasing opportunities. For instance, in greenhouse operations, or in horticulture and lawn care, in which there are at present 90% more jobs than can be filled. But why just disrespectfully shut them down?
Unless, of course, you want to privatize prisons, run them as a business for which crime must be increased because it is the raw material from which you profit, and bring the food in from the U.S.
Point two: The government prison farm closure policy is not in the best interests of the Canadian taxpayer, nor of society.
This one ought to be a no-brainer. Prisons cost the taxpayer a lot of money. (They’re also full of people who’d be better doing community service, but that’s another conversation.) Too much of the time prisons provide an education in criminal networking, and return people to society as more efficient crime perpetrators than when they went in. Skills that are valued by the community and result in jobs can offset this effect, as is well known. So what do we want –more and more criminals, increasingly expensive for us to warehouse, or more self-sufficient citizens who taxpayers do not have to support?
Now let’s consider health. There’s the moral or mental health value of contributing to your upkeep by growing your own food, of course. But also, people in prisons get sick and have to be treated at taxpayer’s expense. Many studies have shown that an interaction with nature and other living beings makes prisoners six times less likely to get sick. Taxpayers, add up the bills. Do you want to pay the doctor for six times more patients who have been made artificially ill by being cut off from the organic world? By closing prison farms, the government is mis-spending your money in advance. They say they are closing the farms to save money – but they haven’t figured in the increased costs of more and more repeat offenders, nor of the increased illness rate that will result from the closures. But maybe that’s what they want: more criminals. At your expense. In super-prisons. Because it’s big business.
My last point is: The government is out of tune with the era of a changed and changing climate into which we have already moved.
Despite the climate change deniers who don’ want to believe in the laws of chemistry and physics, the climate is indeed changing – with more extreme weather worldwide – more droughts, more floods, more tornadoes, more heat waves. Farmers know that. These changes are already affecting world food production. Big agribusinesses with their monocultures will be hardest hit – for monocultures and their mon-diseases, see wheat rust and the potato famine — whereas smaller, more diverse mixed-farming operations are not only more productive per acre but also more resilient during extreme weather episodes — especially if they build organic soils.
Also, the closer a community is to its food supply, the better it will be able to get through such systems melt-downs without famines, civic disorders, and loss of life. Other governments – such as Britain’s – are already planning along those lines – towards national and local food self-sufficiency — and implementing their plans. Why isn’t our government doing the same? Why is it moving backwards?
In conclusion, let me say that I think the government plan to close prison farms is a wasted opportunity, as well as a direct contribution, not to increased “public safety” as the government claims, but to increased public poverty, increased public instability, and increased public danger.
It is also dumb as a stump and stupid as a box of hair and also a sack of hammers, and those who thought it up have their lights on but nobody home, and aren’t playing with a full deck. Follow them, and you’ll soon be up an aptly-named excrement-filled creek without a paddle. I learnt those down-to-earth expressions while we were running our farm, farms being places where you do tend to get down to the earth, literally.
Government! Are you listening? Are you living up to the promises on which you got elected, long ago – accountability, responsibility, transparency, and access for the taxpayer? Or have you shut yourselves up in a mental prison of your own construction – where, on the taxpayer’s dollar, you need listen to nobody but yourselves, like some old-fashioned absolute monarch surrounded by yes-men and flunkies?
It’s time to descend from the ideological palace and get down to earth. Because that’s where the food comes from.