When Ohio first began training prison inmates to work on farms the nation was still recovering from the Civil War and a native son, Ulysses S. Grant, was running for president.
Not many ex-prisoners become farmers anymore, which is one of the reasons Gary Mohr, director of the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction, announced in April that the state would sell 12,500 acres of agricultural land and auction off 3,300 head of cattle held at eight prisons.
After 148 years in the farming business, the department says it makes more sense to sell off assets and use the cash to fund job training, transitional housing and rehabilitation programs for the 20,000 inmates who leave prison each year.
But the decision has puzzled — and angered — some of those impacted, who say it came without warning and after the state invested heavily in modernizing its farming operations. Last year taxpayers shelled out nearly $9 million for new barns and a milking parlor at two prisons.
“That’s why we are still scratching our heads. How can you do this at the tail end of all this work? You should see these barns – you could land a plane in them, they’re so big,” said Sally Meckling, spokeswoman for the Ohio Civil Service Employees Association, the union that represents 30,000 state workers including the 56 who will be impacted by the decision on the farms.
The final shutdown isn’t expected until next year but DRC has already begun shedding assets. Cattle auctions this past week at the prisons in London and Lebanon were met with union pickets.
Phil Morris, president of the union’s Chapter 8310, said the prison farms keep inmates occupied and teach them more than just agriculture.
“It teaches them an honest day’s work and it teaches them those skilled trades that they can take with them in the streets and actually have that ability to not come back (to prison,)” said Morris, who works at Lebanon.
Union members question whether the change is linked to DRC’s decision to hire a private firm, Aramark, to provide food service at the prisons.
Ohio started its prison farming system in 1868 when the Board of State Charities proposed the establishment of a farm, according to the DRC.
Most prison farms in the United States were initially established to punish prisoners through hard labor but later became a cost-effective way to feed inmates and provide vocational training.
Ohio’s 51,000 inmates drink 1.9 million gallons of milk and eat more than 3 million pounds of beef a year, according to the DRC. For decades, that food has been produced in-house.
DRC will work with a private contractor to operate the meat processing plant at Pickaway Correctional Institution as a training facility for inmates. The state already advertised for bids to sell 1 percent and skim milk to the prisons, starting June 1.
State Sen. Bob Peterson, R-Sabina, a grain farmer in Fayette County, said he has been advocating for the changes, arguing that private farmers can more efficiently manage the crops and animals. Inmates can still learn the benefits of seeing something grow or caring for animals through programs, such as greenhouses and guide dog training, inside the prison fences, he said.
“I believe land should be privately owned, not publicly owned unless there is a specific purpose,” Peterson said. DRC plants 5,000 to 6,000 acres of grain crops to feed to its cows but inmates aren’t able to work every hour in a day like a private farmer during planting and harvesting, he said.
It is unclear how much money the sale of assets will net the state or exactly how it’ll be used, but Peterson said the sum is expected to be “substantial.” Land sales require legislative action but selling animals and equipment is an administrative decision, he said.
DRC officials say the move is part of a rethinking about how best to prepare inmates for the day when they leave the institution.
“Those who run large organizations know that priorities change as they continually seek to improve their operations,” said DRC spokeswoman JoEllen Smith in a written statement. “That’s what is happening here as we look for more strategic and effective ways to get inmates quality job training to help them successfully transition after their release.”
DRC currently spends more than $5 million in payroll costs for approximately 72 farm employees, Smith said. She argued that those resources can be better used where the need is greatest: inside the facilities.
Shutting down the farms also will help limit the smuggling of contraband — drugs, tobacco, cell phones — into the prisons, according to state prison officials.
Eighteen state prison systems as well as the federal corrections system conduct farming operations, according to the National Correctional Industries Association.
Other states have shut down their operations. New York in 2009 began closing 12 prison farms, citing operating losses.
‘We are disappointed’
Union members aren’t alone in their opposition to the changes.
The Ohio Association of Second Harvest Foodbanks receives about 100,000 pounds of inmate-produced food each year for distribution to the needy.
Second Harvest also purchases supplies such as seeds and fertilizer and DRC provides the labor and land to plant, tend and harvest grain crops. Revenue from the crop sales goes to the food banks.
“We are disappointed because it has been a real win-win-win proposition,” said Lisa Hamler-Fugitt, the association’s executive director.
Inmates still will be involved in some farm activities. Vegetables are grown at eight facilities for food banks, a program that isn’t affected by the shutdown and which the state hopes to expand. But the program to raise cash crops on state-owned land will be phased out.
Staff writer Nick Graham contributed to this report. Information from the Associated Press is included in this report.
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