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Evaluating the Effectiveness of Prison Farm Programs
By Robert Winters, JD, Professor, School of Criminal Justice, Purdue Global University
Published: 09/23/2013

Farm2 In the mind of the general public, the image of rows of prisoners in striped uniforms working the fields of a prison farm under the watchful eye of guards on horseback is a stereotypical truth—at least a historical truth. For decades a sentence of imprisonment “at hard labor” meant days spent working the fields, particularly in areas of the country with agricultural economies. Mississippi’s largest correctional facility, the Mississippi State Penitentiary at Parchman, was long known as the “Parchman Farm,” and the massive agriculture operation at the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola was called simply “The Farm.”

In some cases substantial prison farm operations remain. The Mississippi State Penitentiary farm used 600,000 man-hours in fiscal 2012, planting over 5,700 acres in vegetables, rice, corn, wheat, and soybeans and producing over two tons of vegetables worth more than $1.3 million and almost half a million eggs. Oklahoma’s highly organized prison farm system, Agri-Services, produces or processes some 723,000 pounds of beef, 115,000 pounds of pork, 1,445,000 pounds of processed meat, and 568,000 gallons of milk, along with 7,500 tons of hay and 4,500 tons of livestock feed, in a typical year. In the late 1990s the Georgia Department of Corrections enjoyed a per-inmate food cost that was 30 percent below the national average thanks to its 10,000-acre farm system and food processing and distribution network.

Even those who criticize the historical prison farm systems as exploitative acknowledge basic benefits: Inmates given the opportunity to work outdoors tended to be healthier and also less aggressive. Facilities were nearly self-sufficient in terms of food (with some even selling surplus production) while inmates benefitted from a higher-quality diet. The training and work experience that inmates gained working these farms provided at least a small degree of reduction in recidivism.

Beginning in the 1970s, however, prison farms underwent a transformation similar to the one that affected the U.S. agricultural sector overall. Just as family farms were increasingly replaced by massive, centralized, and highly mechanized “agribusiness” facilities, prison farms became less efficient and effective. Many state corrections systems scaled back or even eliminated entirely their prison farms.

The fundamental issue was mechanization. As farming utilized more and more technology that was more and more complex, employing inmate labor became less and less practical. Pennsylvania finally shuttered its prison farm system in the 1990s after years of financial losses. A November 1997 report from the Iowa Department of Corrections Prison Industries summed up the challenge: “labor-intensive work by inmates is incompatible with today’s farming techniques” because “inmates cannot operate high-technology farm equipment” since “the length of stay is insufficient to train an inmate to handle the equipment.” Similarly losing money on its farm operations, the Iowa DOC turned to renting out its farmland for cash.

Yet the combination of rising prison populations and shrinking corrections budgets has made any option for reducing costs—such as producing foodstuffs in-house—attractive. Departments have by now explored all available options in foodservice, including outsourcing where appropriate, but costs can only be cut to a certain point. Correctional staffers are well aware that food is a central issue for offenders, and widespread dissatisfaction with what comes out of the kitchen can quickly produce discipline issues with both individuals and the population as a whole. (Item 25 on the “Manifesto of Demands” issued by the rioters at Attica Prison in 1971 insisted that “better food be served to the inmates” and called their current diet “a gastronomical disaster.”) The heavy use of highly processed foods that are generally cheaper means lower-quality, less healthy diets for incarcerated populations.

Anecdotal evidence of prison farm effectiveness is inconclusive. For example, a 2001 study sponsored by the Bureau of Justice Statistics identified Hawaii and South Dakota as having the highest correctional food service costs (8.2 percent and 11.3 percent respectively), and neither operated a prison farm system at that time. Yet the state with the lowest food service costs, North Carolina, did not operate such a system, either.

While comprehensive analysis of the true cost-effectiveness of prison farms systems is scarce, a graduate research project in economics conducted at the University of Central Florida in 2005 attempted to look at all cost factors in a prison farm system (such as correctional staff, machinery, land, and training) and create an accurate cost-benefit analysis. The analysis was certainly not ideal. For example, land rental was included as an expense factor even though traditionally most prison farm systems have operated on state-owned property. It was also necessary to assign a hard value to subjective potential benefits such as improved morale, discipline, and inmate diet and reduced recidivism; that value was $50 per inmate per year.

The study analyzed 47 states; it determined that ten would benefit from a prison farm system rather than a traditional food service program. For the remaining 37 states, a farm system would actually increase costs. Even doubling the value of subjective benefits to $100 did not change the outcome, but—perhaps significantly—reducing training costs by half from the assumed $1,000 per inmate to $500 per inmate increased the number of states that would benefit from ten to 27. This would seem to support the significant effect that higher-technology mechanization has had on the viability of prison farms.

Nevertheless, correctional authorities and community partners in some jurisdictions have pushed the frontiers of traditional prison farms with new initiatives. The GreenHouse “horticultural therapy” program at the notorious Rikers Island facility in New York City feeds into the complementary GreenTeam vocational internship program for newly-released offenders in an attempt to reduce recidivism. In 2011 Georgia piloted a program to provide low-risk, non-violent probationers the opportunity to work on local farms, addressing a severe farm labor shortage of over 11,000 jobs faced by Georgia farmers while providing employment and hopefully reducing recidivism.

It seems clear that the old prison farm model is only barely viable at best. However, there are alternatives available (and others still to be conceived and created) that should benefit both correctional systems and offenders for as long as people have to eat.

About the author:

Corrections.com author, Robert Winters, holds a Juris Doctorate degree and is a Professor with Kaplan University. He is also a member of the National Criminal Justice Association and serves as a Western Regional Representative, a member of the National Advisory Board and their National Elections Committee.

Other articles by Winters



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