Opinion: Ohio should rethink selling prison farms

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inmate pouring feed
An inmate pours livestock feed at an Ohio prison farm. (Farm and Dairy file photo)

WOOSTER, Ohio — Sometimes as reporter, I have to take a step back from what I’m doing. Sometimes the news or the action is too much, and I need a little time to think.

That was the case April 12, when the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction announced it would be closing all of Ohio’s prison farms, selling 12,500 acres, 2,300 head of beef cattle and 1,000 dairy cows.

The plan, according to the DRC, is that the sale of prison land and assets would provide millions of dollars to help fund inmate rehabilitation efforts.

In disbelief

My first words to my editor, when I forwarded her the story from The Associated Press, were “I cannot believe this.”

And the more I read, and the more I learned, the more upset I became.

First, I knew that this decision deserved a fair and objective story — a news article that would include both sides of the issue. We provide that story in this week’s edition and, as a reader, you can agree or disagree with what is being done.

But because what you’re reading now is an opinion column, I will tell you, I think the decision to sell off Ohio’s prison farms should be reconsidered, re-evaluated, and quite possibly, revoked.

Diverse skills

In the initial AP story, prisons director Gary Mohr said about 220 inmates work on the farms in peak season, with few taking farm jobs after being released. About 20,000 inmates are released each year, and he reasons that spreading the wealth across all programs would do more good.

But is the goal of the program to have inmates go into farming?

An inmate pours livestock feed.
An inmate at an Ohio prison farm pours feed for cattle. (Farm and Dairy file photo. This individual may or may not still be incarcerated.)

I visited the Mansfield prison farm for a story in 2014, and I saw prisoners who were trained, not only in farming, but also construction, heavy equipment operations, shop labor and animal husbandry.

Moreover, the inmates I met were learning life skills about hard work, patience, planning and being trusted. They used wrenches, drove tractors, worked with bulls and took care of crops. And they were growing the very food that they and other inmates would eat.

Earning trust

They got to work on the farm only after proving they were responsible enough to be trusted outside of the brick and mortar and fences that housed other inmates. They were made to put every wrench back where it belonged, and anything that came up missing or out of place resulted in a full inspection.

We titled the story, Ohio’s prison farms help inmates experience freedom, responsibility, because, well — that’s what we saw.

Serious issue

I do realize we have a serious drug and prison problem in this state. And I realize that with today’s land values, the state could probably net a good return on 12,500 acres. For instance, the state fared well when it sold and privatized the prisons themselves, in 2011.

But what’s a bunch of money going to do to fix it? What’s the cost of selling off our farms, and buying the foods and services they currently provide? Our inmates learning to work and providing for their own?

Life lessons

According to the announcement, the DRC wants to “phase out outmoded prison farming operations,” so they can “focus on programs inside prison walls,” in order to provide “meaningful, in-demand job training.”

When I was a boy, the most “meaningful” job training I ever got was from agriculture. I learned that if I didn’t stack hay bales right the first time, I’d be made to do it again. I learned how to work with animals, neighbors, how to work safely around farm machinery, and that chemicals and vapors were nothing to mess with, let alone sniff.

I also learned the value of hard work, and the value of taking care of the land, as it takes care of us. I did not become a farmer, but I sure do use the skills I learned.

Like our state prison farms, many of our farmers could also choose to sell off their land and make millions. But because they know the value in what they do, selling is a last resort.

Beef cattle at prison farm.
Beef cattle at an Ohio prison farm.

The DRC does point out the potential for an increase in tax revenue if these properties are sold to private farmers or developers. If the property were privately owned, the state and local governments could tax you, and they surely will.

And I suppose that in some cases, farmers would probably like the chance to add the acreage to their operation. I don’t downplay that there could be some incentives.

But this is a huge decision — a big chunk of land and herd of cattle that has been state-owned and providing a public service for many years.

Selling this off in the name of money deserves full scrutiny and review — down to the finest detail.

Related:

Ohio corrections department to sell prison farms (April 15).

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Chris Kick served Farm and Dairy's readership as a reporter for nearly a decade before accepting a job at Iowa State University Extension. An American FFA Degree recipient, he holds a bachelor’s in creative writing from Ashland University.

14 COMMENTS

  1. I agree with you Chris. I had to read that article twice because I didn’t believe what I was reading the first time. In prison as in life, every person has needs. Yet in life, try as we will, not every need is met, and sometimes we take great joy in a few successes. It doesn’t mean we forget about those who are not successful, it means we keep trudging along and we try harder to achieve success for others. I think it should be that way in a prison environment. Small successes should be applauded, and then keep trying for the others. Selling these assets is a mistake, and I think in years to come, those who made the decision will regret it, but I doubt that they will ever admit the mistake publicly.

  2. Totally agree. Got to visit Mansfield and thought at the time it was a great way to teach inmates life skills and food production, etc. Why would you take hands on experiences away from them. Don’t understand this decision at all. In a time where the public is questioning everything being raised and how it is raised we need to keep educating by doing. Plus there goes the bill for the “keep” of inmantes since they will not have the food that they raise for consumption.

  3. I do not think the prison farms should be sold! The lessons and skills learned by the inmates are not necessarily ones that are accounted for. What about the ones who don’t trust anyone but, because of the work with animals, learns a greater degree of trust? Or learns that caring for something kindly is rewarding? The state is also probably underestimating the value of what they produce which is used to feed the inmates. The stores can’t get enough organic food.What if they concentrated of specialty markets, giving the inmates an avenue of learning a trade they could use when they get out? In my opinion, things get sold off to fix current problems and eventually everyone involved comes up short. At that point the money is gone and so it the resource.

  4. Our Governor is constantly talking about all of the private sector jobs he’s created in Ohio – If this land is sold, the prison system will have to replace the food services through the private sector meaning more jobs in the private sector. The only problem is, once the money for this land is spent (and you know how the government can spend money) they’ll be looking for more money to keep things running and our taxes will go up that much more. It used to be, when kids had responsibilities (such as on a farm), they grew up knowing that hard work is what got you ahead in life the pride in what you have done is well earned and respected.

  5. Agree with you, Chris. Plus–it must be my skeptical nature here, but I am getting the feeling that “I smell a rat!” Who has the “insider track” all ready to buy these, hummm?

    These farms and lands belong to US-Ohioans, not the Governor nor the Corrections people.

    KEEP THE PRISON FARMS.

    Put the authorization of these sales up for a public vote first!

  6. Once these farms are gone they will rely more on aramark to provide more food to the prisons. I also learned that John Kasich has stock in aramark how convenient for him to line his pockets more. They need to leave the farms.

    • It’s not surprising at all, but I had no idea that Kasich has stock with Aramark! That answers why this whole situation, is being brought out. Mohr and Kasich are filling their pockets big time. I am one of many unfortunate employees, who had to start over when it came to seniority/holding a decent job in the workplace! Both of the individuals listed, sold our place of employment out (North Central Correctional Institution) in Marion, Ohio after 17 years of good operation. That was in 2011 and was sold to the privatization group CCA (Corrections Corporation of America) I believe. Gary Mohr is benefitting from that and a couple more deals, from what I have been told and read about. Remember people of Ohio, it took Kasich 4 attempts and I’m sure a little “BONUS”, to get Gary Mohr to accept the position of Director of the Department of Rehabilitation and Corrections! Research if possible. We were fortunate really. Some Officers and staff, have been put through this 2-3 times!

  7. In veterinary school, I spent some time at the prison farms doing herd health work. The state of Ohio is forgetting that working with animals also helped some prisoners connect with another being again. They may have lost their way in society, but they took a real sense of pride in working with the livestock & doing something productive. It’s not about teaching them to farm, it’s about giving them some life skills, so that some day when they are released, they can be a benefit to society. Isn’t that what rehabilitation is all about?

  8. I have been following this thread, and agree with the opinion that the farms should remain for multiple reasons. Has the decision to close them already set in stone? Should there be a time period of public discussion and/or time to submit opinions about the farms? After all, they do belong to the citizens of the State of Ohio. It seems to me that only a handful of people is making this decision and it all seems very politically motivated.

  9. i first read this in the Columbus Dispatch ; then Kris ‘s article . This is ANOTHER of KASICH’S ploys to steer OHIO into a poverty state ,then brag TO The world what, and how he saved our azzez !If there are 220,000 prisoners released , a year FROM ohio PRISONS there would be NO inmates at all in this state , HOORAY ! but wait there IS no truth to this statement , Think about this ! NOW why would they wish to close these farms , send all these prisoners Back inside the walls , feed them , house them , then put the BURDEN of keeping them onto the TAXpayers OF OUR STATE ?? Granted they could gain some revenue , for this sale BUT would that offset the FUTURE cost of keeping ALL those prisoners that are NEVER TO BE RELEASED ? THIS IS A BUNCH OF BULL -U-KNOW -WHAT !

  10. So what recourse do the citizens of the State of Ohio have? Has this been publicized in other cities other that Columbus? Does anyone know if other, preferably the majority , people know about this sale? Should there be public hearing on the selling of public assets?

  11. Gary Mohr has decades of experience in corrections and I thought he was an intelligent man. I believe his judgement may be clouded after working in the private prison sector when he first retired from ODRC. There are many benefits of the prison farms, one being that you have inmates who at the end of their workday, eat dinner, take a shower and go to bed. They are too tired to cause any problems. ODRC sold off one prison and closed others. Now Gary Mohr has mentioned it may be necessary to start a new building project at a cost of a billion dollars. Yes, that’s one billion, with a “B”. Great thinking on selling that prison. Now he wants to sell prison farm land? When I first started much of the food served in prisons was raised on the farm. While some of the general public may think inmates don’t deserve good food, I can tell you from personal experience that bad food can cause big problems in the prisons. Bad food such as what is being served by Aramark, since Gary Mohr and the Governor turned the food service operations over to a private company, (research the stories on maggots found in food and kitchens in ODRC institutions). It’s being penny wise and pound foolish. I’m sure Gary Mohr knows how much it would cost the state if there was another major disturbance in an Ohio Prison. The savings from contracting with a private company would be peanuts in comparison. I’m no bleeding heart liberal. I worked in ODRC prisons for 30 years and I’m interested in what’s safest for everyone.

  12. WHY! Is there anything that can be done to stop the sale? Kasick takes money from schools one year give back the next and says he saved the schools. The money from the sale will not be around 100 yrs from now. It will not around two yrs.

  13. I have enjoyed your write ups , your everyday comments ,in many publications , YOU CHRIS are absolutely correct with your comments about sale of Prison farms . THIS IS JUST ANOTHER PLOY of Kasich , Mohr& Portman to bring Refugees into our state . They then talk about the 600, 000 that Strickland took from our state !

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