Trendspotting: Felony Farmers


As I drove to work recently I listened intently to a National Public Radio report that detailed how 1,100 square feet of the most influential real estate in the world is being transformed into an organic garden that will produce a plethora of unpronounceable edibles.

The White House press corps milled about as the First Lady Michelle Obama and a group of local school children tilled a plot of soil on the south lawn.

Those 1,100 square feet of prime real estate could yield almost one ton of vine-ripened tomatoes. That’s a lot of hearty spaghetti sauce, warming firehouse chilli or deliciously nutritious Caprese salad. The report centered on the idea that as a society we can improve our nutrition and health while reducing our food costs and making more effective and sustainable use of available land. 

What really sparked my interest, however, was not the First Farmer’s repurposing of the White House grounds, but rather a new book titled “Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life.” Author Barbara Kingsolver chronicles a year in her family’s life, delving into the lessons learned during their attempt to live off a small plot of land in rural Virginia.

The ability of a putting-green sized garden to produce an incredible amount of healthy food provided stark reconfirmation that we, as a society, are not as resourceful or imaginative as we could be in the stewardship of our available land.

The collective effect of these recent exposures to intensive agriculture lead me to think about lost opportunities in our jails and prisons, which have abandoned agricultural productive capacity and self-sufficiency in the face of the politico-economic climate of our times.

In the world of corrections, we have essential standards for outdoor space intended to expose inmates to recreation time infused with fresh air and activity — jail standards require a minimum of 25 square feet per inmate, while prison standards recommend a great deal more. Can recreation space utilize the urban agriculture model to yield more than fresh air and outdoor activity?

Back to the calculus of intensive farming: even using traditional techniques, those 1,100 square feet of White House real estate could yield 100 to 150 pounds of vegetables in one growing season — a much higher yield than with haute-cuisine produce, such as arugula or heirloom tomatoes. If the White House farm plot was enclosed in a protective glass structure or polyethylene tunnels, plants could be grown on a year-round and the yield would increase several fold. State dinners could draw on an endless, diverse and guilt-free pantry of produce for the gastronomic pleasure of visiting dignitaries and their taste buds.

Hollywood films from “Brubaker” to “The Shawshank Redemption” chronicle the stories of inmates who are encouraged to work for food. However, with scant exception, state prison farming operations have been in decline for many years. Although hastened by investigative journalism that exposed the excesses of management control techniques employed in many jurisdictions, the decline of prison farming is rooted in the outcome of cost-benefit analyses.

Studies of farming operations in Texas, one of the more efficient, mechanized prison farming operations in the United States, demonstrated that an acre of properly managed prison farm land could produce about 5,500 pounds of vegetables per year.

Inmates enjoying a balanced, nutritional diet should consume 300 to 350 pounds of beetroot, broccoli, beans and other delicacies per year. The conclusion being: an acre of traditionally farmed land could provide a lot of inmates with a year’s worth of leafy delights.

On your next visit to the food supplies storage room in your prison or jail, check the labels on the rows of canned vegetables and calculate the distance from the storage room back to the canning site — forget trying to calculate the distance from field to processing site. Divide the distance by, say, eight to get an idea of the per-gallon fuel consumption, and multiply the result by, say, $3 for a rough estimation of fuel costs.

Were I a betting man, I’d wager the serving of preserved French beans at tonight’s meal costs about as much as an 8-ounce chateaubriand at McCormick and Schmidt’s and that doesn’t count the cost and consequences of canning.

Growing Sustainability

Sustainable prisons have become the new vogue in many states, but most of the effort thus far is tilted toward completing the LEED rating system checklist.

Much energy is also expended presenting project and program findings at conferences, as we boast about becoming good environmental stewards. But remember, the real beauty, effectiveness and value of a LEED-certified building resides in its intrinsically and extrinsically sustainable operation. 

As prison farming shrivels toward extinction, the emergence of a trend toward intensive agriculture offers an opportunity to reduce food costs while engaging inmates in productive activity within an already secured environment. If Michelle Obama can feed homegrown lettuce from the south lawn to heads of state, perhaps the correctional industry can transform a portion of the thousands of acres at its disposal into hothouses of sustainable productivity that engage bodies and minds to reduce inmate idleness and food costs and enhance health and prosocial behavior.

In recent articles, I have suggested prisons need not be located only in the most remote locations. We have thousands of acres in declining industrial parks in most American cities that can accommodate prisons without increased risk to the community. As we inch back towards $4-per-gallon fuel, and face the challenge of finding and retaining qualified staff, the location of a prison involves a great deal more consideration than public safety.

New urban prison sites and existing remote facilities can conceivably institute agricultural works programs and accommodate small organic farm plots within the secure perimeter. Ten square feet of land in a year-round, greenhouse production can meet the annual vegetable requirements of 3 to 5 inmates. In Wyoming, the women’s prison is producing mouth-watering tilapia, while HMP North Sea Camp, in the United Kingdom, is using hydroponic techniques to produce an increasing amount of the prison’s food.

Our imperative should be to exhaust our imaginations to design, build and operate existing and future facilities with a much greater appreciation of the historical arc and potential vectors of human evolution and the environmental, economic and social implications of our decisions. Perhaps the back-to-the-future movement toward sustainable agricultural, locavorism and community food systems is a velvet revolution worth joining, not least for the field of corrections.

Stephen A. Carter, AICP, is principal of Carter Goble Lee LLC in Columbia, S.C., and a member of the Correctional News Editorial Advisory Board.

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