Monroe County Sheriff’s Office Animal Farm in Florida.
As the animal farm supervisor at the Monroe County Sheriff’s Office Animal Farm, I have spent the last 12 years watching the bonds of compassion and love develop between the inmates and the animals under their care.
I truly believe that animals save people. I feel the inmates' hearts break when an older or infirm animal passes away, or has to be euthanized. I could never imagine them having to slaughter the animals that they have come to love – innocent beings who have become family. One cannot form a bond with something that you're going to eventually kill. What a heartbreaking thought.
Many of the inmates have told me that the animals have saved them, that this farm has been a salvation during their time of incarceration. They can see the parallels between the animals and themselves – many of the animals have been abused or abandoned, formerly unloved or discarded, yet they still find a way to love – and they love unconditionally. They do not see their caretakers as inmates, they do not judge. The animals see a caring soul, a friend.
The goal is to rehabilitate the inmates, to improve their self-esteem and their outlook on life, to build compassion. We do not expect them to go out and rescue animals or start an animal sanctuary, we are just giving them the tools to be a better person when they go back to the real world. When life becomes difficult, maybe the strength they have gained from knowing that they mattered and that they made a difference will help pull them through. They are responsible for caring for these little lives and it gives them positivity and improves their self-esteem, it makes them feel like they are worth something, that they matter.
The inmates who work on the farm are calmer and have less anxiety due to working outside and around the animals. After their release, many of the inmates return to visit the farm with their families to show them the animals they love and cared for. They are proud of what they have accomplished. They are invested in this farm and its inhabitants. The goal is not to make a profit, not greed, it is a goal of change, changing the lives of people and animals, and serving the community. We are making a difference, one life at a time.
As a lawyer specializing in farmed animal issues with a background in psychology and social work, I’ve spent the last decade closely following Canada’s animal agriculture system and observing how it impacts both animals and workers.
Dairy farming—whether goat or cow—involves impregnating female animals against their will in order to induce lactation. The baby that results from the pregnancy is a literal by-product of this process, and will be taken from his or her mother at birth to either become a future dairy animal or killed for meat. It is well documented that this causes immense emotional distress to both mother and baby. After the strain of a few successive pregnancies, the mothers’ bodies become depleted and they too will be killed for meat at a fraction of their natural lifespan.
Dairy farming work, then, inherently contains some troubling messages: that we can take advantage of those who are weaker than us for our own purposes; that females’ reproductive systems can be exploited; that family bonds don’t matter; that mothers can be deprived of their children despite the emotional suffering it causes them; that vulnerable babies can be deprived of the care of their mothers; and ultimately that life itself is unimportant and disposable. These aren’t messages that should be communicated to anyone, let alone someone who is in need of social rehabilitation.
Many agricultural jobs in Canada are filled by migrant and refugee workers. Prisoners are an equally marginalized class of workers. A spokesperson for the Agricultural Producers Association of Saskatchewan puts it plainly: “there are some jobs that we can’t get Canadians to do.” Among other reasons, that’s because the work is psychologically damaging: it perverts our natural empathy for other creatures and forces workers to become desensitized to suffering. It’s unjust to expect workers without any real choice to do soul-destroying work that the rest of us can’t stomach.
EOPF’s proposal for plant-based and sanctuary farms is a common-sense yet overdue way to assist incarcerated persons in significantly improving and transforming themselves. It is also an important step towards a larger rethinking and reshaping of how prisons exist. Plant-based and sanctuary farms would provide those serving sentences with a chance to gain valuable knowledge and skills, while at the same time connecting with nature and understanding deeper parts of their own existence. This will undoubtedly empower them to cascade back to society with better prospects for the future and more compassion for the world we live in.
Criminal defence lawyers see firsthand the risks presented by custodial sentences. For many of us, fighting to protect our clients’ interests is not done solely on the basis of a professional duty. We also fight for our clients’ freedom because we are empathetic to the risk of substantial harm that a prison sentence poses to our clients and their families.
Prison, however, is a reality for thousands of men and women across Canada. The overwhelming majority of people who receive federal sentences are ultimately released back into our communities after spending significant time in violent, crowded and unpredictable environments. We, as a society, are then faced with the challenge of reintegration without rehabilitation.
The reality in our country is that most individuals who are sent to prison have likely never visited a farm, nor do they have a meaningful connection to agriculture or animals apart from being a consumer. Yet when one is taught how to cultivate a compassionate and sustainable livelihood, they are also taught how to cultivate compassion and dignity for themselves, the environment and other living creatures (both human and non-human animals).
|Photo credit Sinan Khalaf/CBC|
As a criminologist who specializes in green criminology, violence, and critical animal studies I have had concerns about the use of incarcerated populations in animal agriculture for years (please see Fitzgerald 2011).
There is now ample academic research documenting the therapeutic benefits of interacting with animals in pro-social ways, such as through animal assisted therapy. What is less commonly acknowledged is that there may be negative socio-psychological impacts associated with working in industrial animal agriculture, specifically in animal slaughtering, as documented by my research which found that the number of people employed in animal slaughtering is significantly associated with violent crime rates in US counties, even when controlling for correlates of crime (e.g., proportion of young men, economic measures) (Fitzgerald, Kalof, and Dietz 2009). As an industry, animal agriculture is also notorious for high injury and illness rates, as well as extremely high turnover rates (Fitzgerald 2010). In short, it is not the type of work that we should be training inmates to do (Fitzgerald 2011).
I therefore strongly recommend that animals only be incorporated in correctional environments in a manner that fosters empathy for them (such as through animal assisted therapy or animal sanctuary programs) and not through animal agriculture, which by design serves to objectify and truncate empathy.
Amy J. Fitzgerald, PhD
Department of Sociology, Anthropology, and Criminology
Great Lakes Institute for Environmental Research
University of Windsor
Fitzgerald, Amy J., Doing Time in a Slaughterhouse: A critical review of the use of animals and inmates in prison labor programmes, Journal of Critical Animal Studies, 10, 12-46, 2011.
Fitzgerald, Amy J., A Social History of the Slaughterhouse: From Inception to Contemporary Implications, Human Ecology Review, 17(1), 58-69, 2010.
Fitzgerald, Amy J.; Kalof, Linda; Dietz, Thomas, Slaughterhouses and Increased Crime Rates: An Empirical Analysis of Spillover from 'The Jungle" into the Surrounding Community, Organization and Environment, 22, 158-184, 2009.
|Photo credit The Walrus|
I agree that a good environmental case could be made that cows and other ruminants should not be part of the farm program. I think you make a strong case for not including abattoirs in the prison experience, and I do think the focus should be on plant production.
A key issue is also the economics. Labour intensive plant production would likely give better ROIs in a prison environment where labour is cheap than field crops in Kingston where the fields are small and they can’t compete with Western Canada. Also, small cow–calf operations can’t compete with the big ones out in W Canada. Greenhouse operations, mushroom growing, and garden crops for food production would be good.
I would also like to see an anaerobic digestion facility which uses the waste from the prison (and perhaps even Kingston waste) converted into biogas that could be used to heat greenhouses and the prison itself. This is likely to be a growing industry in Canada, and therefore useful training for the inmates.
I love the idea of pulses, but not in Ontario. You need to do what is suited to the region. Fruits, vegetables, higher value crops requiring higher labour would work well. It is right by the lake so you can do things other parts of Canada can’t. I would vote for a kiwi operation (Chinese Gooseberries). They grow well in Kingston. Grapes could be good, but the alcohol part may be a problem.
In Canada, animals have only been seen as property since colonization. Colonists imported farmed animals to what is now called Canada and the United States as a means of settling the “new world” in the image of their homeland. The colonial government of Canada used animal agriculture as a means of colonizing the land, which was only made possible by the idea that animals and land can be owned as property - notions that were antithetical to the beliefs of most first nations at the time. Given the Trudeau government’s commitment to reconciliation, the connections between animal agriculture and colonization ought to be taken seriously.
Prison farms – where inmates are tasked with agricultural work – have existed in Canada since before confederation and they too were a means by which land was colonized. Wardens repeatedly asked the government to purchase more land for prison-based agriculture and prison farms were upheld as a means by which the new country could keep its settlers safe. Prison farms are therefore a two-fold means by which Canada’s colonial government co-opted Indigenous lands. Penitentiary farms have been closed in Canada since 2010 but will be re-opened under the Trudeau government. If our current government’s reconciliation efforts are sincere, animal-based prison farms must not be re-opened.
The argument for prison farms is that they serve as a means to instill vocation skills and empathy, therefore contributing to rehabilitation. Those in favour of prison farms portray an image of bucolic pastoralism with prisoners pleasantly interacting with animals. But the rehabilitative function of such programs is not adequately supported by empirical evidence. In fact, prior to the closure of the penitentiary farms prisoners managed thousands of hens confined in battery cages and worked in slaughterhouses to kill and dismember the animals (Fitzgerald 2011; Goodman and Dawe 2016; Project SOIL 2017). Prisoners from Kingston institutions, for example, worked in animal-slaughtering for more than 300 farms in the surrounding area (Project SOIL 2017).
Slaughterhouse work is counter to CSC’s rehabilitative ideals and is inappropriate as a vocational training program. These prisons subject the most vulnerable in our population to terrible work environments; slaughterhouse work “has injury and illness rates three times the average of the rates of other manufacturing industries” (Fitzgerald 2011, 22). What’s more, instead of learning skills with which to improve their lives upon release, slaughterhouse work is low-paying and has a turnover rate of 200% a year (Fitzgerald 2011). Slaughterhouse work has also been shown to be criminogenic in comparison to other manufacturing industries and to be related to increased crime rates among the communities where they operate, including sexual assaults, domestic abuse, and family violence. This form of work is not only precarious and physically dangerous, but psychologically damaging as it requires employees to “inflict harm upon living beings while rationalizing their behaviour and suppressing their compassion” (Fitzgerald 2011, 14). It necessitates that workers engage in behaviour that would be criminalized if done to humans or to animals not legally categorized as food.
Given the role animal agriculture played in Canada’s shameful colonial past that continues to structure our largest food systems and the limited rehabilitative potential of animal-based prison farming, it is imperative that re-established prison agriculture programs do not reproduce these relations. Alternatives are available and necessary.
Evolve Our Prison Farms’ proposals are compelling and persuasive. Recreating prison farms as sites not for killing but for cultivating cooperation, sustainability, and skill-building would have many benefits. In addition to the positive social, interpersonal, and environmental outcomes, there are noteworthy work and labour possibilities, both on the new farms themselves, and in terms of preparing participants for more empathetic and humane employment. This is a clear opportunity to establish Canada as a global leader, one which should be seized.
As a founder of the farm sanctuary movement, I urge the Canadian government to take this historic opportunity to establish farm sanctuaries as part of a restored prison farm program. For thirty years I have witnessed the healing and rehabilitation that sanctuary represents, both for animals and caregivers.
I co-founded Farm Sanctuary in 1986. It began with a visit to a stockyard. It was there that I realized that people look at animals very differently when they see them as commodities. I looked into animals' faces, saw their expressions, and recognized that they were afraid. But the handlers were not looking into the animals' faces. They were looking at cuts of meat, at body conformation, at meat on the hoof to be sold by the pound. This kind of relationship with animals would be the opposite of rehabilitation.
When animals are seen as commodities, they are routinely mistreated. Most people are shocked to learn about what goes on in farms, stockyards and slaughterhouses. Farmed animals are genetically manipulated, artificially bred, confined, physically coerced and killed. How can this be considered rehabilitative?
I remember a calf who was sent to the stockyard in upstate New York on the day he was born. He was still wet from amniotic fluid and dying of hypothermia. I took him to a nearby vet. She said, "What are you wasting your time for? This calf has very low chance of survival. It makes no economic sense. It's going to cost more than he's worth to do this." I said, "To me this calf is not an economic unit, he's an individual. I want to do what I can to help him." She gave him intravenous fluids and I took him back to the sanctuary. Opie recovered and lived to be 18 years old. His physical health improved, but he only started thriving when he joined the other animals. These animals, in addition to having physical needs, have emotional needs. They need to be in a positive environment, with social connections, in order to thrive. Just as people do.
When the animals first come to Farm Sanctuary, often they are very frightened. Many have only known cruelty at human hands. But as time goes by, they learn to trust us. They learn to enjoy life, play, and experience pleasure and joy. They also show companionship, friendship and unconditional love. At a sanctuary, where the focus is on caring and nurturing and kindness, the lives of animals and people are improved. It goes both ways. This is exactly the kind of rehabilitative model that would bring healing both to the animals and to those who have the extraordinary privilege of caring for them and loving them. It's a beautiful thing.
I encourage the Canadian government to give sanctuary to the Pen Herd cows and any other animals brought onto Canada’s prison farms. This would go a long way towards transforming the hearts of people who know what it is to be wounded and discarded. In safeguarding the lives and wellbeing of vulnerable animals, prisoners would be healing themselves.
Gene Baur, BA (Sociology), MPS (Agricultural Economics)
Faculty member, Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health
|Photo credit: Jocelyn Michel/Le Consulat|
A significant factor in the climate crises is agriculture and I know farmers are trying to reduce their impact on the biosphere. In this period of the Anthropocene, meat is a luxury item with a heavy carbon footprint. We have to transition to a much more plant based diet.