Tom Nordlie (352) 392-0400
GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Inmates at one northeast Florida county jail aren’t just serving time, they’re serving the community, working at a University of Florida facility that’s boosting local agriculture.
Men and women sentenced to short terms in the St. Johns County Jail are volunteering at UF’s Hastings Demonstration Unit, which conducts extension and research projects aimed at local farmers. This week a crew is renovating facilities in downtown Hastings; previously, inmates helped faculty members plant and harvest potatoes.
The program, launched in January, was arranged by UF and the St. Johns County Sheriff’s Office, said Scott Taylor, director of operations for the demonstration unit, part of UF’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences.
Much of the work performed by inmates is hand labor associated with agricultural research, Taylor said, but UF experts at the center also try to match tasks to individuals’ abilities.
“We’ve discovered over time that a lot of these inmates have got some skills, and you don’t ever know who is going to show up,” he said. “We had a guy working for us last year that was a really good welder and so we put him in the shop doing repairs for us.”
Taylor said for inmates, the work offers a change of scene and a sense of accomplishment. For the sheriff’s office, it’s a chance to help taxpayers by reducing the university’s need for paid laborers. And for UF, the additional work force means the Hastings unit can accomplish more with its existing budget.
“By the end of this calendar year, the sheriff will have saved us somewhere in the neighborhood of $80,000 in additional labor costs,” he said.
The program is part of a larger effort to preserve farming in northeast Florida, one of the nation’s fastest growing areas, Taylor said. For the past two years Flagler County had the fastest-rising population of any county in the nation, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
UF, in partnership with city and county governments, state agencies and private industry, is working to preserve agriculture and protect water quality in Flagler, Putnam and St. Johns counties – known collectively as the tri-county agricultural area.
As part of the effort, UF is enhancing its programs in Hastings. But budget constraints had made it difficult to operate the two 50-acre sites there, one in downtown Hastings, the other on Cowpen Branch Road, Taylor said.
Last year, he approached St. Johns County Sheriff David Shoar to request a work force drawn from the county jail. The sheriff agreed, and inmate volunteers worked six-to-eight-week stints in the early spring and summer to plant and harvest potatoes, one of the area’s staple crops.
The arrangement will continue on an as-needed basis, Taylor said. A crew is currently working at UF’s downtown Hastings facilities. During the two-week project they’ll clear, clean and paint a building, remove old landscaping features and help install an irrigation system.
The St. Johns County Jail screens inmate volunteers before allowing them to participate, said Maj. Frank Cyr, deputy director of corrections with the sheriff’s office. Men and women are only allowed to take part if they have resolved any pending cases and were sentenced to county jail time, generally for misdemeanor offenses.
No inmates with a history of violent or sexual offenses are admitted to the program, he said. The sheriff’s office provides constant supervision for the work crews, as well as transportation and meals.
“They are all considered low-risk individuals, and 90 to 95 percent of the time they are local individuals who are residents of this county,” Cyr said.
The jail operates several inmate work programs, he said, all of them intended to help participants stay out of trouble after release. Most of the programs assist county agencies with tasks such as road maintenance, recycling and park beautification.
Beginning next year, the county’s inmate work programs may be relocated, Cyr said. The sheriff’s office plans to buy a 90-acre plot of farmland to establish both an agricultural center to farm vegetables, and housing for inmates involved in work programs.
UF experts have already pledged to provide education and advice to assist the center’s farming efforts, Taylor said.
“What we’d like to see in the future – and this is still a ways down the road – is see some more serious training on some kinds of activities that would be useful to inmates in the work force once they’ve been released from their jail terms,” he said.