Conservatives closed the prison farms, got it all wrong about the skills deficit in the economy

Ted Hsu
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When the Prison Farms were closed in 2010, the Conservative government’s rationale was written down in a letter from Public Safety Minister, Vic Toews, to the House of Commons committee on Public Safety and National Security

CSC has been gradually phasing out the six farm operations located in federal institutions, and will continue to do so as planned.  The intention is to better address the employment needs and realities of offenders in an effort to reduce recidivism and increase their chances of successfully reintegrating into society.

CSC recognizes the need to implement skills development opportunities for offenders that will allow them to access the labour force in a more significant way, given that the vast majority of offenders return to urban centres.  From 2004 to 2009, less than 1% of offenders found work in the agriculture industry.  As such, the closure of the farm operations is allowing CSC to focus on developing alternative training that will provide more relevant and practical employability skills for offenders facing today’s labour market.  Examples of specific training programs identified to replace the prison farm program include, among others, a meat cutting operation at Westmorland Institution in New Brunswick and a First Nations housing project at Riverbend Institution in Saskatchewan.  Forklift operation, light-frame construction and welding are other employment training opportunities that CSC is currently offering to offenders.

The Conservative’s argument was, essentially, that working in agriculture did not prepare offenders for the jobs they would be looking for in urban centres, where most of them would be returning to upon release.

(as an aside, I heard many complaints of idle inmates after the prison farm closed. The alternative training programs and activities were not ready.)

But the main point was that the discipline of working on the prison farm really did provide the skills training to make these offenders employable upon release. Inmates had to rise early in the morning, put in a full days work, co-operate with other inmates, meet the demands of running a farm such as taking care of individual milking cows on the cow’s schedule, and learn to deal with all sorts of contingencies on their own. Farmers, working in rural isolation, become good at that, and need to be a jack of all trades.

Here is dramatic proof of the value of the “soft skills” learned through hard work on a prison farm:

In 2009, the Springboard Project in the United States, released a survey of employers based on 601 interviews of managers in businesses with hiring authority. Results were weighted to reflect the overall U.S. economy, and have a margin of error of +-4 at the 95% confidence interval.

Here is one of the results:

Springboard_Project_Soft_skills_deficit [pdf file]

Springboard_Project_Soft_skills_deficit