A US prison says farming is no longer “meaningful” work for inmates

Putting inmate farms to pasture.
Putting inmate farms to pasture.
Image: Reuters/Romeo Ranoco
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The cows are being put to pasture—forever.

The Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Corrections is preparing to end a program that puts convicts to work alongside state farm employees to maintain animals and gardens. The program is being slashed to make more room for “more meaningful career training opportunities,” the prison system said. But not everyone agrees with that logic.

At least 50 state employees will lose their jobs as the program is phased out, which has rankled the Ohio Civil Service Employees Association. The group has organized several protests outside prisons and at auction sites where state cattle are being sold.

Union president Chris Mabe told an Ohio radio station that the prison farm program was good for the inmate employees, as well as local communities whose food banks received vegetables and milk from the program.

Having prisoners work the land was once a cornerstone of the US prison system, especially in rural areas. Mississippi’s state penitentiary at Parchman was once called “Parchman Farm,” while one Louisiana state penitentiary was simply called “The Farm,” according to Robert Winters, a professor of criminal justice at Kaplan University. Supporters of the program argued that work outdoors promoted the health and wellbeing of inmates, since many facilities lived largely off the food.

But the programs lost favor as the agricultural industry consolidated and became more mechanized starting in the 1970s. Rather than training inmates to operate high-tech farming equipment, states slashed farming budgets and rented farmland for cash.

Still, the scale of production among some remaining prison farm programs is impressive. In Mississippi, inmates in 2012 planted more than 5,700 acres of vegetables, rice, wheat, soybeans, and corn, producing nearly $1.3 million in food. In Oklahoma, inmates produced 723,000 pounds of beef, 115,000 pounds of pork, and 568,000 gallons of milk.

To address high costs, some prison facilities have taken a different tack. New York’s Rikers Island facility has a “horticultural therapy” program that feeds into an internship for newly-released prisoners. In 2011, Georgia began placing non-violent probationers on local farms to address the state’s farm labor shortage.