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