November 5, 2014

Prison Farms and Local Food Systems

Sebastian Lim

Sebastian Lim

Research Assistant

Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future

How much of this land can be used for gardens?

How much of this land can be used for gardens?

Just as community gardens are popping up in vacant lots and parks, they are also appearing in prisons. While you do not hear the term “prison farms” every day, they are becoming a more prevalent contributor to local food systems. Correctional facilities in California, Colorado, Georgia, Mississippi, New Jersey, Ohio, and South Carolina have developed and publicized successful farming practices within their own institutions—inmate-managed dairy farms and vegetable plots are two examples. Maryland is no exception to this trend.

As a part of our farm-to-institution research, the Maryland Food System Map Project decided to investigate the 800-acre correctional facility complex in Hagerstown, Maryland, which is composed of three units: the Maryland Correctional Institution–Hagerstown (MCI-H), the Maryland Correctional Training Center (MCTC), and Roxbury Correctional Institution (RCI).

Bill Merritt, the executive director of Environmental Compliance Safety & Emergency Operations from the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services, gave me a tour that began within the MCTC. He and Lieutenant McCoy, an environmental and safety compliance officer, escorted me through the MCTC, the second largest compound in Maryland that is enclosed in one fence, and which has one of the largest community gardens.

Once we passed through security, they directed me towards the community garden. Stretching at least 100 yards across the lot was a greenhouse, about 20 feet by 40 feet, and an adjacent vegetable garden that was about 180 feet long. The inmates meticulously manage the entire property, and it showed. The team of inmates, led by one of five inmates trained by the Master Gardener Program, oversees the project and explicitly described the fruits, vegetables, and future projects they planned. We went down each row of more than ten types of crops, which include:

o   Sunflowers
o   Beets
o   Bell peppers
o   Onions
o   Jalapeño and banana peppers
o   Carrots
o   String and pole beans
o   Cantaloupe and honeydew melons
o   Beefsteak tomatoes
o   Squash
o   Cauliflower and cabbage
o   Sweet corn and popcorn

The inmates, Merritt, and Lt. McCoy told me about other food production initiatives that benefit the facility. An old bakery facility within one of the correctional facilities makes baked goods for the inmate population; it used to produce bread and other sweets for the entire region, but they are seeking to update the older equipment. The officers oversee an apiary that contains four hives. They are looking to implement a correctional program where they can use the wax and honey to make hygienic products and reserve beekeeping for some inmates as a job. There is a chestnut tree program under development, where they plan to plant about 75 trees and harvest the nuts.

Initially, my project anticipated that correctional facilities would seek local sources of food from outside farms. As demonstrated from my visit, the opposite was true: there is a growing movement for facilities to produce their own food. There are instances where MCTC and MCI–Hagerstown are even producing foods for other institutions. Within the MCTC plot, inmates initiated a pumpkin donation program, where they plan on donating up to 100 pumpkins to local public schools in the community. Outside of Hagerstown, a two-acre plot, managed by two hardworking inmates, produces cucumbers, melon, tomatoes, zucchini, broccoli, kale, beets, cantaloupe, and watermelon for Maryland Food Bank, a non-profit hunger relief organization.

These sustainable initiatives hold immense potential for the facility; unfortunately, there are some obstacles that hold the facilities back from their full potential. Remember the large expanse of land that the facilities rest on? Currently, more than 600 of those 800 acres are contracted out to an outside solar power company. The field is covered in solar panels that produce energy; unfortunately, the facilities do not get to benefit from it. Some of the land is also contracted out to a neighboring farm to produce feed corn. Additionally, a part of the land right across the facilities’ borders holds a withering orchard; no one has yet restored it, resulting in a lot of unused space that the facility could take advantage of for its food production if restored.

Despite these obstacles, the inmates, Merritt, and his team continue to improve the sustainable food system in the facility. Within a year they were able to not only expand their garden, but also insert their apiary, pumpkin patch, and a wider variety of crops. These projects offer a multitude of economic benefits to the inmates. They open up jobs to help inmates’ transition into the working world. Some inmates told me how working on these plots helped relieve stress. During harvest, the foods grown by inmates give inmates a chance to eat their own grown food and enjoy the fruit of their labor. Finally, these environmental projects offer more food to the community. This movement towards sustainable institutions may provide a model for other correctional facilities around Maryland to follow. The Map Project will continue to follow other institutions that are developing sustainable models of food production in Maryland.

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