SALEM, Ohio — In an effort to generate millions of dollars for rehabilitation, and to increase prison safety, the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction announced April 12, that it will close and sell all of its prison farms.
The state prison system currently owns 12,500 acres of farmland, as well as 2,300 head of beef cattle and 1,000 dairy cows, at eight farm operations. The state has operated the farm system for more than 100 years, using inmate labor, and had used part of the food to feed inmates.
The state is expected to continue operating its meat processing plant, at the Pickaway Correctional Institution, the AP reports.
“The phasing out of outmoded prison farming operations will improve safety and provide more meaningful career opportunities for prisoners returning to society,” according to a statement put out by the DRC.
According to The Associated Press, which first broke the news, the state will continue farming this year, but prepare to auction off livestock and stop farming by 2017.
Gary Mohr, director of the DRC, told the AP that the decision was made because of the low number of inmates who work on the farms — and take farm jobs after being released — compared to the potential benefit for all inmates, if the farms are sold and the funds dispersed.
Mohr noted that in peak season, only about 220 inmates worked on the farms, compared to the 20,000 inmates who are released each year.
“Few — if any — inmates have pursued careers in farming following their release,” the DRC said.
Related: Farm and Dairy featured the Mansfield prison farm in 2014.
The union that represents the prison staff at the farms — the Ohio Civil Service Employees Association — disputes the need to close the farms and says they were self supporting.
“It’s not being done for any reason of economy,” said Chris Mabe, OCSEA president.
He argues that prison farms have done a lot of good — even if inmates haven’t gone into farming jobs upon release. For instance, inmates also learn skills related to heavy machinery operation, welding, driving large equipment, and using a variety of tools for repairs.
“Unfortunately, we believe the impetus for this change is purely political,” said Mabe, who is a correctional counselor at the Lorain facility. “It has nothing to do with DR&C’s core mission of recidivism or safety. This is about dollars and cents for corporate interests.”
The DRC statement says the state has “become a national leader in criminal justice reform over the past five years, finding new and innovative ways to reform the organizational structure of the state’s prison system and help prisoners successfully transition back into the community.”
In 2011, Ohio announced plans to sell and privatize some of its prison facilities — projecting the state would generate millions of dollars by privatizing those operations.
Mabe said private food lobbyists have been trying to convince state lawmakers to shut down the farms, so they could take over the food business, as well.
The DRC says that by selling the farms, “the state prison system can drive more energy and resources back inside the prison walls, where safety needs are greatest.”
The department also expects that ending the prison farms will also minimize the opportunities for inmates to bring illegal contraband into the prisons.
It’s not yet clear when or how the properties will be sold, but the DRC said the privatization of these lands will allow local governments and school districts to collect taxes on the property.
The DRC says inmates who currently work for the farms will be reassigned to other programs for job training opportunities. The AP reported that about 70 prison staff employees will be affected, but said layoffs are not expected.
Mabe said there are many questions to still be answered, and he’s concerned how the decision could affect the state’s food pantries, which had benefited from the prison farms.
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