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A watercolour of goats in prison surrounded by inmates in orange prison jumpers behind bars.
The cover of a new report about goat dairy operations planned for eastern Ontario prisons. (Jamie Neufeld), Author provided

The Correctional Service of Canada’s goat plans won’t help inmates

Many of us are hopeful for the changes 2021 will bring. The Correctional Service of Canada (CSC) is hopeful it will bring them goats. Lots of goats.

Ten years ago, farms operated by CSC were shut down, an action decried by a diverse group of Canadians. In 2019, CSC announced it was resurrecting the farm programs at Collins Bay and Joyceville, two federal prisons located in Kingston, Ont.

These programs, however, would be different than the earlier version. The CSC plan is to open an industrial-size goat dairy operation with more than 2,000 goats in its first phase.

A grey goat looks into the camera.
This goat could be headed to prison. (Anton Darius/Unsplash)

The eventual maximum number planned is unclear, but documents obtained through access-to-information requests indicate CSC is purchasing enough equipment to handle more than 3,000 goats.

Exactly how much money has been earmarked for this project is also unclear; in its 2018 budget, the federal government allocated $4.3 million to the program for the ensuing five years. Internal documents indicate CSC will be using nearly $10 million of its capital budget for the program.

Got (goat) milk?

Why is CSC getting into the goat milk business? Reportedly, it’s in order “to provide federal inmates with training opportunities to acquire new skills, while preparing for employment and successful reintegration and rehabilitation into the community.” These are laudable goals, but they’re unlikely to be accomplished via an intensive livestock operation.

We detail the many reasons why in our newly released report.

Among our many concerns is the impact it will have on prisoners. There is no empirical evidence that working in a major livestock operation has any rehabilitative impact. It’s very different from animal-assisted therapy.

What’s more, as far as we can tell, prisoners will not receive farm specific value-added vocational training, such as certifications. Nor does the goat initiative match the needs of the labour market, which are essential elements of effective inmate labour programs.

The current labour gap in the dairy industry is relatively small, and is projected to be halved by 2025. The goat dairy industry has expanded in recent years, but growth has flattened and is approaching a condition of over-supply.

Dairy industry work is also “a high-risk occupation, characterized by elevated rates of injury, illness and turnover.”

A woman tends to her goats on a goat dairy farm.
Dairy industry work is high risk. (AP Photo/Ivan Valencia)

Our concerns aren’t limited to the prisoners working on the farms. Other prisoners, correctional staff and even the broader community could be affected by these farms.

Large concentrations of animals can contribute to viral spread and diminished air quality. Just last week, experts in the Netherlands reported a zoonotic illness — one that passes from animals to people, like COVID-19 — is responsible for a 20 to 55 per cent greater risk of developing pneumonia among those within 1.5 kilometres of a goat farm. This follows on the heels of an outbreak of Q fever transmitted from goats to people that killed 95 people.

Goats are manure machines

Goats also produce a lot of manure. By our calculations, the CSC goats will produce 12,000 to 13,500 pounds of manure a day.

This manure can contain substances (like cyanide, nitrates and heavy metals) that can harm humans, animals and the environment. For instance, research has documented worse water quality near intensive livestock operations than water quality downstream from waste-water treatment plants.

Internal documents indicate CSC’s plan is to build a massive manure lagoon, and consultants have suggested they approach surrounding farmers about applying excess manure to their lands. Manure is one reason why property value surrounding intensive livestock operations frequently decline; a study in Washington and Michigan documented declines of 50 per cent.

A truck distributes manure on a farmer's field.
A truck distributes manure on a farmer’s field. (Piqsels)

According to Farm and Food Care Ontario, the largest goat farm in the province has 1,200 goats. The size of CSC’s goat dairy would therefore make it the largest in the province.

It’s unclear who the CSC’s customers will be, but due to CSC’s Food Service Modernization Initiative, the goods produced at the goat farms won’t be consumed by inmates. It therefore appears that private producers would be competing with the largest goat dairy in the province, which pays its inmate-workers $5.25-$6.90 per day, well below the minimum wage.

Less risky, more beneficial alternatives

CSC’s goat plan is even more confusing given there are many more promising and less risky prison farm program alternatives.

Prisoners involved in a gardening program in Portland, Ore., produced about 5,000 kilograms of food in 2019, and donated much of it to food banks.

Given that the quality of food is a frequent concern of prisoners, increasing the availability of fresh produce is an obvious choice for Canada’s reopened prison farms. While the Food Services Modernization Initiative makes it difficult to incorporate meats or dairy, fresh seasonal produce could be incorporated into prison kitchens.

A man looks at bright-red cherry tomatoes growing on a tomato plant.
Fruit and vegetable farming programs would be more beneficial to inmates. (Priscilla du Preez/Unsplash)

Agricultural work is by no means easy. But under the right circumstances, it can be rewarding and provide relevant training for inmates. Northeastern Correctional Facility in Massachusetts operates an innovative farm program, complete with an open-to-the-public restaurant that employs prisoners as cooks, bakers, servers and dishwashers.

Roots of Success, a program in Washington, provides job training and skill-building to help prisoners find work in the green economy. The Cook County Jail outside of Chicago offers a Master Gardener’s Certificate in partnership with the University of Illinois.

The Mission Correctional Centre in British Columbia operates a horticultural therapy garden program that donates food to Indigenous communities experiencing food insecurity. Program participants have found the community connections built through food donations to be an important part of their healing process.

The GreenHouse program at Rikers Island prison incorporates horticultural therapy alongside training and educational opportunities in partnership with the Horticultural Society of New York. Participants have lower rates of recidivism, and have been more likely to obtain viable employment.

Saying no to goats

We include these examples to highlight that promising alternative models exist. In our report, we recommend an alternative farming program for CSC that’s focused on producing organic fruits and vegetables for prisoners and community food organizations, offers meaningful career-oriented employment, training and education, and provides supportive rehabilitative therapy and reintegration activities.

This program would be of value to prisoners, the broader community, and the environment.

Reopening prison farms is a historic opportunity for CSC to establish itself as a leader in innovative rehabilitation and reintegration programming. The proposed goat dairy will do everything but. We urge CSC to re-evaluate their plan because the potential risks outweigh the highly speculative benefits.

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