by Joan Champ
The phasing out of Canada’s six federal prison farms, including the Riverbend Institution at Prince Albert, was announced by the Government of Canada on February 23, 2009. By March of 2011, all penitentiary farms in Canada had been shut down. The main reasons cited by the Conservative government for closing this program were that the farm operations were losing money, and that farming skills weren’t “marketable” once offenders were released into the community.
The Saskatchewan Penitentiary at Prince Albert began operating on May 15, 1911. Riverbend Institution, a minimum-security site where offenders maintained the institution’s farmland, was constructed in 1962. Since the closure of this farm annex, no alternative program at Riverbend, now clustered with the main penitentiary, has been created to take its place. The food once grown or raised on the farm has been replaced with food contracts.
Early warden reports show that, from the day the Saskatchewan Penitentiary opened in 1911, farming was an important part of institutional operations. Warden W. F. Kerr wrote that 80 acres had been cultivated the first year, and that a further 55 acres of land had been cleared of stumps and roots in readiness for seeding the following year. All of the grain crops – oats, wheat, barley, as well as hay – were used for livestock feed. The following year, Kerr reported that the farm had produced a good crop of vegetables, enough to fully supply the prison’s 123 inmates. The piggery, he said, “is yet in its infancy” with 2,114 pounds of pork provided to the prison steward’s kitchen. By the 1920s, 457 acres were under cultivation, root cellars had been built for vegetable storage, and a new piggery had been constructed to accommodate 200 hogs. In 1952, Warden J. W. Everatt reported that a dairy barn had been completed, and a milk house was in operation.
In 1960, the prison’s dairy herd – 82 head – did very well. The yield of dairy products that year is recorded as follows: “77 lbs. of cream were sold to an outside source, 93 quarts of cream and 407 gallons of milk were sold to officers, and 39,095 gallons of milk were supplied to the Steward, while 1,591 gallons of whole milk and 509 gallons of skim milk were used for feed.” The steward got 399 butchered hogs, resulting in 68,238 lbs of meat. The penitentiary’s laying flock of 1,193 birds produced 23,295 dozen eggs. The 640 inmates were served 705 chickens at their Christmas and New Years’ dinners, while the officers purchased 409 birds to take to their homes.
The purpose of the farm at the Saskatchewan Penitentiary was never to train inmates to become farmers. Initially, it was designed primarily to put food on the prison’s tables, and secondarily to ensure that inmates worked hard during their time in prison. After the formal “farm annex” structure was introduced in 1962, farm work was seen to have rehabilitative benefits. As Warden John Norfield told the Prince Albert Daily Herald in 1970, while the farm was a productive one, and helped to make the institution self-supporting, “work on the farm is a healthy, outdoor exercise, and it gets a man accustomed to doing a hard day’s work.”
Prison farms offered a unique environment where inmates learned a variety of technical skills and trades – not only agricultural and horticultural skills like caring for plants, pest management, and planting and harvesting techniques. Many also had the opportunity to learn bookkeeping and accounting, how to operate and repair farm machinery, carpentry, animal husbandry, and milking. Two steers and seven or eight hogs were butchered in the prison’s slaughter house every week. Inmates were trained in modern abattoir methods, making them eligible for this type of work after their release, especially in Prince Albert, home of Burns Foods, one of western Canada’s largest meatpacking operations.
In the early 1970s – a period of peak production at the Riverbend farm annex – farm manager Knute Hemstad, along with 40 to 45 inmates and 11 corrections officers, was growing grains and nearly every type of vegetable on 1,800 acres of land, making it the largest and most diversified prison farm in Canada. “Some farms may have larger single operations, but ours is the largest overall,” Hemstad explained to the Herald. In addition to two combines, two swathers, two balers, a bale wagon, eight tractors, potato planters and harvesters as well as other equipment, the prison owned 165 steers, and 53 dairy cattle – considered to be some of the best milk producers in the province. The prison was self-sufficient as far as milk and eggs were concerned. “We’re holding our own financially and supplying many of our own needs,” Hemstad stated, “which makes the farm very worthwhile.”
As of 2007, according to the Correctional Service of Canada’s website, 108 federal inmates were assigned the Saskatchewan Penitentiary’s farm. They helped to grow a variety of vegetables and field crops, and to run a fully functioning dairy operation and meatpacking plant. The federal government nevertheless viewed its six prison farms as outdated constructs. The decision was made to close them in 2009, presumably to focus on teaching inmates skills and trades that are more relevant to today’s society.