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Local families, state economy benefit from UF/IFAS prisoner farm worker programs

By Beverly James

GAINESVILLE, Fla. – In a move that helps Florida save money, aids local families and helps prisoners eat healthier, the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences has beefed up its programs that allow inmates to work on university farms.

At the UF/IFAS West Florida Research and Education Center in Jay, Florida, prisoners produced nearly $1 million of fresh produce that fed hundreds of needy families and saved the state money.

Each weekday morning, a van of 10 inmates from the Berrydale Forestry Camp–a minimum-security satellite facility of Century Correctional Institution–arrives at the farm. Under the supervision of correction officer Randy Dozier, prisoners work a 10-acre plot of land at the 640-acre research facility. Inmates grow sweet corn, collards, snap peas, tomatoes, cantaloupes, watermelons and squash.

“They spend seven hours a day learning about farming, how to check for diseases on plants, how to identify insects and lots of other skills,” Dozier said.

UF/IFAS staff and prison officials said they look forward to years of working together. “This partnership is fruitful because everybody benefits,” said Wes Wood, center director of the West Florida REC. “It really is phenomenal to see prisoners working hard, seeing the results of that hard work while they are giving back to the community.”

Southwest Florida Research and Education Center in Immokalee, Gulf Coast Research and Education Center in Balm, Florida, and the Plant Science Research and Education Unit in Citra have partnerships with local prisons to work at their facilities.

The Gulf Coast REC employs a squad of 15 inmates from the Hardee Correctional Institution through the Community Work Squad Program.  The inmates work four, six-hour days a week at a rate of $2 per hour, said Gary Vallad, Gulf Coast REC associate director. “They perform tasks vital for the production of ornamentals, vegetables and small fruit crops; tasks such as land preparation, planting, thinning, staking and tying, harvesting, and clean-up at the end of the season,” he said.

Also, inmates assist with the environmental horticulture research and extension projects at the center, provide labor for small construction projects and help maintain the grounds at the research center, Vallad said.  “We donate produce every season to the Hardee Correctional Institute,” he said.

At the UF/IFAS Plant Science Research and Education Unit in Citra, the Plant Science Unit and the Marion County Sheriff’s Office farm sent $1.25 million worth of produce into the prison kitchen with $823,227 coming from research projects in Citra, said James Boyer, coordinator of research programs at UF/IFAS.  “It is an excellent program in which, ultimately, Florida taxpayers win,” he said.

UF/IFAS Citra developed a partnership with MCSO and started out with two inmates. Currently, the county sends one deputy with 24 male inmates and a deputy with 10 female inmates daily to work in Citra, Boyer said.  And costs for meals at the prison have dropped significantly because of the addition of produce grown at Citra.

“Before this program, the MCSO meal cost was approximately $1.27 per inmate per meal and we are helping to reduce that cost to $0.51 per meal,” Boyer said. “With up to 2,000 inmates in our local jail, it is a substantial savings to the public.”

The inmates receive five days off of their sentence for every 30 days they work at the facility, Boyer said. All inmates have a one year or less conviction with no violent or sexual offenses in their past, he said.  “We have successfully used their help for 14 years, and faculty enjoy and appreciate the extra help

An eight-man crew of prisoners from the Ortiz Work Camp in Fort Myers, Florida works every Friday at the UF/IFAS Southwest Florida Research and Education Center in Immokalee, Florida, said John Dunckelman, coordinator of research programs at UF/IFAS Southwest REC. Additional crews come at harvest time, to help with destruction and tear-out of finished crops, to aid in maintenance and management of ditches, roads, fire breaks and woods, he said.

“We depend heavily on the Florida Department of Corrections for able-bodied help with some tough work that would be hard to accomplish without the manpower that they can bring,” Dunckelman said.

The program at West Florida REC started in 2009 when farm manager Greg Kimmons suggested using prisoners to help renovate buildings and do maintenance at the facility. The program would provide manpower at the farm and give prisoners fresh produce to eat, Wood said. The prisoners started out working three acres on the Jay facility, and performed maintenance on farm equipment, cleaned offices, laid carpet and tiling, put up drywall and painted, Wood said.

“We are really proud of this program it’s a big help to us. It is a mutually beneficial relationship that has made us the model for other prisons and farms to work together,” Wood said.

Prisoners enjoy seeing the results of their hard work, and the state saves money, said Warden Douglas “John” Sloan. “Prisoners really appreciate the opportunity to work outdoors, stay busy and get exercise,” Sloan said. “And, the program benefits the prison by bringing in healthy food and lowering the amount of money we spend on food that we purchase for prisoners. The food is healthy and locally grown, so we can substitute the processed foods with the farm foods.”

Also, prisoners who have never worked on a farm have an opportunity to learn new skills, Sloan said. Prisoners who participate in the program have new skills when they leave the prison and re-enter society, he said.

In addition, the program provides fresh produce for needy families during Thanksgiving week through the Farm to City program. “Prisoners help us grow food for the Farm to City program for families in Santa Rosa and Escambia counties,” Wood said. “Last year, we fed 600 families with the produce that prisoners grew.”

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Caption: Scott Taylor, director of operations for UF’s Hastings Demonstration Unit, supervises St. Johns County Jail inmates renovating a UF building.

By: Beverly James, 352-273-3566, beverlymjames@ufl.edu

Sources: Wes Wood, 850-475-5230, woodwes@ufl.edu

Warden Douglas “John” Sloan, 850-256-6505

James Boyer, 352-591-2678, ja.boyer@ufl.edu

John Dunckelman, 239-658-3421, jdunck@ufl.edu

Gary Vallad, 813-633-4121, gvallad@ufl.edu