Prisoners in Montana are learning the ropes of ranching while reforming their lives.
By: Kathleen J. Bryan, The Montana Standard
A white straw hat shielding his weathered face from the midday sun, cow boss Allen Johns coaxed his 33-year-old student to hold a little mane and take control of the rope.
"I teach you to two-hand your horse," Johns said, encouraging Daniel Osse to guide his horse through a series of turns and circles in the small ring as his fellow workers eyed the novice rider wrangle his 19-year-old "starter horse."
Johns is raising more than cattle on the 37,000-acre spread at the Montana State Prison west of Deer Lodge. He's also raising men's hopes — and their expectations of themselves — as part of the mission of the Montana Correctional Enterprises to teach, train and transform offenders for re-entry into society.
The 192 men who work "outside the fence" start at $4 per day in job opportunities ranging from ranch work to milking cows, fighting wildfires and operating machinery.
Many of the inmates in the Work and Reentry Center have had no structure in their lives and little to no guidance, Warden Leroy Kirkegard said. But at the center, they are expected to get up each morning and be ready for their respective work assignments.
Kirkegard, who grew up on a farm in eastern Montana, said the skills and lessons the men learn fixing fence, calving or milking translate to taking responsibility and holding themselves accountable. The prison's Work and Reentry Center is a vital part of preparing offenders to return to the community, and he said staff works with inmates every day to "get them ready, to improve themselves."
The goal of MCE programs is to provide inmates with job training that will benefit them when they are released from prison. Learning the skills needed in the workplace improves an inmate's chances of becoming a productive citizen, thereby creating safer communities and reducing recidivism or a return to prison.
Offenders released in fiscal year 2011 after working in MCE programs for more than a year had a recidivism rate of 29.8 percent, compared to 37 percent who did not work in MCE programs — a 19.5 percent reduction — according to the Montana Department of Corrections 2015 Biennial Report.
DOWN ON THE RANCH
On a hazy day in late June, an inmate moved irrigation pipe and three others worked in concert in a separate field to harvest hay. The ranch lies in the shadow of Mount Powell and is home to 1,600 black Angus; 350 Holsteins, each producing about 11.5 gallons of milk daily; more than 300 calves, and a myriad of wildlife.
Agricultural Director Ross Wagner, who grew up on an eastern Montana ranch, said alfalfa, grass hay, barley and oats are grown on 3,000 acres. A pipe crew of 36 inmates oversees the irrigation of fields, including 12 miles of hand lines and three pivots. Another 33 inmates round out the workers ages 19 to 60 that are needed to run the ranch and dairy seven days a week.
"It's nonstop," Wagner said. "I don't look at their crimes. I treat everybody the same. We work together, we're a team."
Working outside the fence involves an application process requiring inmates to have a high school diploma or equivalent, provide references, participate in interviews and present a low flight risk. Wagner said reviews also are considered before an inmate is hired for a position — a reward — outside the prison walls.
An inmate who lays irrigation pipe straight, for example, shows an "attention to detail," he said. Recognizing that initiative and work ethic could result in a promotion and a realization for the offender that "I may be able to make something of myself," Wagner added, emphasizing that many inmates look forward to the work.
For others, the minimal supervision and some semblance of freedom under the vast Montana skies can present temptations. In an effort to combat contraband dropped off along the prison's perimeter roads, two corrections officers patrol the roads accessible to the ranch, Kirkegard said.
Intercepting a phone call or letter alerting a possible "drop by a fence post" has led to seizures of tobacco products and drugs such as synthetic marijuana. Strip searches of inmates and routine searches of work areas, rooms and vehicles also minimize unauthorized goods and illegal drugs flowing into the prison.
"When you've got 192 offenders, it's kind of an honor out there, and you've got to mind your p's and q's," Kirkegard said.
Inmates caught breaking the rules receive disciplinary action and may have to return to one of three compounds inside the 68-acre fenced perimeter to determine if they qualify for re-assignment to the Work and Reentry Center.
'I LIKE THE RESPONSIBILITY'
Craig Steven Smith has served 32 years of a 100-year sentence for killing his fiancée, placing her body in the trunk of a car and pushing it over the bank of the Missouri River north of Great Falls.
By Oct. 23, 1982, Smith had a change of heart about marrying 27-year-old Susan Galloway, court documents state. The Malmstrom Air Force Base officer used a glass soda bottle as the murder weapon and deceived law enforcement and Galloway's family until her body was found five days later.
In his more than three decades in prison, Smith has had time to face his demons and realize that taking a life can imprison one's soul as well.
"Absolutely, that's been in my heart for years. There is no freedom in the regret and the sorrow . I feel about everything that has happened," he said quietly.
The 55-year-old grew up in a farming community in Virginia's Shenandoah Valley, bordered by the Blue Ridge and Appalachian mountains. Smith learned to drive a tractor as a young boy.
As a lab tech in the prison's dairy, Smith tests the milk products for bacteria and butter fat. MCE Administrator Gayle Lambert said Smith's certification by the Montana Department of Livestock was a lengthy process, requiring knowledge of microbiology.
"In the past, it was a selfish look at myself. From being here and working in this type of environment, it's more what can I do for someone else. What can I do to make someone's job easier? It's more in a giving sense than a taking sense," said Smith.
Although the average length of stay for offenders is less than 18 months in the Work and Reentry Center, some long-term offenders like Smith are good candidates. His "exemplary institutional behavior" and parole eligibility (since 1997) fit MCE's criteria for inmates seeking job opportunities outside the fence, Lambert said.
Dairy Manager Dave Miller said Smith is "as good as it gets — a special individual."
Miller, a 31-year veteran dairy farmer who proudly claims his central Michigan roots, supervises 32 inmates and four staff. Milking is done in three daily shifts, 365 days a year. Miller's cows eat a veritable "big chef salad all day long," munching on hay, silage and grains among other staples.
Neil Woodrum had been assigned to the dairy just five days when he worked alongside two other inmates, whipping up batches of yellow cake ice cream, one of eight to 10 flavors that workers create. The dairy also produces cottage cheese, buttermilk, yogurt, cream and milk.
A talented custom furniture maker inside the prison, the 55-year-old former Texan wanted more responsibility to achieve his goal: getting out of prison. Woodrum was convicted of attempted deliberate homicide and sentenced in Cascade County in early 2000.
The father of five said a recent letter from his daughter buoyed his spirits when she asked him if he would forgive her, to which he responded, there is "nothing to forgive." He hopes his dairy assignment will prove that he can be responsible and law-abiding.
"I like the freedom and I like the responsibility. . Eventually it will prove something to the parole board. If I can do it here, I can do it on the outside. My goal is to get out and get together with my children," Woodrum said.
In the nearby milking parlor, inmates Brent Wilson, 58, and Joseph Schropshire, 39, were busy disinfecting the udders of about 20 cows before attaching milking machines. The men worked fast and efficiently. Wilson, dressed in blue prison garb and wearing a stocking cap, referred to his job as "harvesting bovine nectar."
OH TO BE A COWBOY
Allen Johns was initially hired as a relief supervisor 27 years ago. For more than 10 years, he has taught inmates how to shoe horses, ride and rope, maintain nearly 300 miles of fence and learn about cattle.
Unlike other areas of the ranch and dairy operations that see a higher turnover rate, Johns said the average length of time an inmate works for him is two years. The first year is a "learning process" that includes riding lessons. One of the first skills inmates learn is tagging calves.
"You wouldn't think you'd come to prison to learn to be a cowboy. Prison offers a lot of things," said Johns, who grew up in Polson in Montana's Flathead Valley. "I get to do what I love to do and teach people how to do it."
Daniel Osse is serving time for two felonies: burglary and criminal endangerment. A native of Harlowton, the 33-year-old has had some experience with farming and ranching, but last rode a horse at age 10. He put in six months working in the ranch's feedlot operation before having his first riding lesson, which he said he was excited about.
"You always want to keep your horse's nose into you. . Hold a little mane," Johns urged Osse.
The horse seemed small under Osse's 6-foot-5-inch frame as he attempted several circle maneuvers.
"A rope is like a gun. If you don't know how to use it, it's a dangerous thing," Johns said.
After the lesson, Osse's focused concentration melted into relief.
"It was pretty good — kind of like riding a bike. I'm excited because it's going to be fun," he said.
Osse started drinking in high school, which he said, "hasn't served me well." Osse added that drug and alcohol treatment since being incarcerated has "definitely helped" him.
"I don't feel the desire is there anymore," he said.
'WAREHOUSING DOESN'T WORK'
The ranch was privately owned up until the 1950s when it was deeded to the state of Montana for the purpose of inmate training programs. Lambert said the agriculture training program, which includes the ranch and dairy, is "self-supporting."
Revenue from the sale of cattle and dairy products cover operating expenses including staff salaries, inmate wages, feed, supplies and equipment. The majority of agriculture purchases are made in the state of Montana. In addition, MCE pays Powell County $46,000 in lieu of taxes each year, Lambert said. Any operational profits support all MCE inmate training programs.
Lambert said national statistics indicate a strong correlation between post-release employment and recidivism. With assistance from the state Department of Labor, MCE is beginning to analyze post-release employment data for individuals that were released from the Montana prison system.
"As the data pertains to Montana Correctional Enterprises, we will be looking at how soon after release an offender becomes employed, how long they stay employed and in the type of job they are employed," Lambert said.
MCE plans to track released offenders for three years to determine if those that found employment soon after release and stayed employed were "less likely to recidivate." The study also will analyze how many offenders found employment in a job that correlated with skills learned while incarcerated.
Warden Leroy Kirkegard came to the Montana State Prison in November 2011 after he retired from a 20-year stint with the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department. He is committed to preparing offenders to return to the community and to achieving DOC Director Mike Batista's vision for the lowest recidivism rate in the nation.
The average cost per day to house an inmate is $102 vs. $5.42 for an offender on parole.
"Warehousing doesn't work anymore," he said. "You can't just continue to keep them in prison. Hold themselves accountable for their lives — that's the only way we're going to bring about change."