Opinion: Prison farms are closing, but the manure remains

Canada will soon have a prison system that costs more to accomplish less with more inmates. That's progress?

One of the more depressing facts of life in our political system is that government ministers are frequently required to say things that they know are false. Presidents and prime ministers are always very optimistic and confident about the state of the economy, for example, even when they’re not. And nobody would ever, ever admit to worrying about failure in Afghanistan. That kind of candour would be irresponsible. Or, at least, that’s what the defenders of casual dishonesty would have us believe.

But in order for this tradition of mendacity to be tolerable, the deception has got to be at least somewhat plausible. Instead, too often, Stephen Harper’s government starts with an ideology that most Canadians do not share and works backward — mixing in spin, argument and transparent justification to arrive at a-wink-and-a-nudge public policy.

The most obvious recent example was the cringe-inducing spectacle of Industry Minister Tony Clement trying to defend the Harper government’s ludicrous decision to scrap the long-form census. The official line was that the census is an unbearable invasion of privacy (even though, out of a nation of more than 30 million, only a couple of dozen individuals ever complained). And besides, a voluntary survey can be just as reliable and comparable to historical census data as long as the sample size is big enough (even though every single statistician in the country will tell you that is flat-out wrong). Clement isn’t a halfwit, but he’s sometimes required to play one on TV.

And while the industry minister was rewriting the curriculum for Statistics 101 on live TV, a smaller though no-less-important example of Conservative myopia was playing out with far less commotion in Kingston, Ont. Federal officials were preparing to auction off the last of the animals and equipment from the few remaining federal prison farms, which Ottawa has targeted for shutdown by the end of this year.

Why shut down the farms? Well, the Tories say they’re a waste of time and money.

When then Public Safety Minister Peter Van Loan announced the closures last year, he argued that the farms ??? which cost a mere $4 million per year to operate ??? were a poor job training program because so few inmates go on to work in the agriculture industry after their release. This is like saying the army is worthless as job training because so few go on to paramilitary work after their discharge. The point is about the experience acquired, not the industry in which it’s used. Anyone with even a passing knowledge of farm work can tell you it involves a wide range of useful skills, from welding and metalwork to logistics and computer skills. More important, the prison farms taught work and social skills to people who were often woefully unprepared to hold down any sort of job ??? things like teamwork, personal responsibility and reliability.

The prison farms haven’t been about training farm workers for at least 50 years. They’ve been about helping men become productive members of society. The government knows that, but as we see all too often, sometimes missing the point is part of the politician’s craft.

What’s really going on? The answer is almost certainly rooted in the Harper government’s “tough on crime” agenda, which will produce longer sentences, more inmates and, eventually, U.S.-style super prisons.

Last week, Stockwell Day, clearly angling to overshadow Clement as the true star of the Parliament Hill clown show, said Canada needs to spend up to $9.5 billion on new and bigger prisons in the coming years to deal with the “increase in the amount of unreported crimes that surveys clearly show are happening.” Minister Day didn’t explain how we will go about locking up unaccused people for unreported crimes, but I’m sure he has a plan.

And where might we build these huge new facilities? The expanse of farmland adjacent to existing prisons will do nicely. And why would we want to do that when crime rates have been dropping in Canada for over a decade? Because the words “tough on crime” produce a Pavlovian response in some voters.

What it means is that we will soon have a national survey that costs more to produce less-useful information, and we’ll have a prison system that costs more to accomplish less with more prisoners. That’s progress!

Unfortunately, most Canadians just don’t care about prison farms because the obvious losers here are criminals, and criminals have no constituency. But you can’t build a better country based on transparent fictions. If the Harper government prefers to handle simple questions like statistics and job training for inmates with artifice, then what hope does it have on the truly difficult challenges like economic development, energy policy and health-care reform?