Ohio is shutting down its prison farms in a move to raise millions of dollars to fund new rehabilitation and job-training programs for inmates through land sales.
The state will continue farming this year but will prepare to auction off livestock and stop farming by 2017, prisons Director Gary Mohr told The Associated Press.
About 220 inmates work on the farms at the height of the season, with few, if any, taking farm jobs afterward, compared with 20,000 inmates released each year in need of help and services as they re-enter the community, Mohr said.
As Ohio struggles to reduce its inmate population and keep offenders from committing new crimes, it makes more sense to look at ways to help thousands of inmates instead of a few hundred, Mohr said.
"We believe that this whole conversion will allow us to look at thousands of inmates and put the focus on them," Mohr told the AP.
The goal is to take the millions of dollars expected to be raised from the sale or lease of 12,500 acres and direct it to other job-training programs and rehabilitation efforts, including transitional housing and addiction recovery services, he said.
The Ohio Civil Service Employees Association, representing prison employees including 56 who work as farm coordinators, said there's no clear rationale for the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction to make the change.
Union president Christopher Mabe said food industry lobbyists have been advocating shutting down the program for years.
"Unfortunately, we believe the impetus for this change is purely political," he said. "It has nothing to do with DR&C's core mission of (reducing) recidivism or safety. This is about dollars and cents for corporate interests." He said inmates in farm programs are taught to operate heavy equipment, weld and drive large vehicles, among other skills.
Numerous states still operate prison farms. Oklahoma inmates, for example, raise 3,400 head of beef cattle and 500 dairy cows and grow vegetables for inmate consumption at almost every prison.
But other states have also gotten out of the prison farm business, including New York, which closed 12 farms beginning in 2009, concerned about annual operating losses of $3.4 million.
Ohio's decision will affect about 70 employees, but Mohr does not anticipate layoffs. He called the announcement to staff Tuesday "a tough day" that represents an end of part of the prison's culture.
"The public expects people coming out of our prisons to be better coming out than coming in, and they expect not to be crime victims," said Mohr. "The approach we're doing is fully aimed at reducing future crime victims in the state."
Ohio Senate spokesman John Fortney said ending the program will require legislative action. He said lawmakers are waiting to see details of the plan before making any decisions.
Ohio operates beef or cattle farms at eight prisons and raises crops at two others. The department has about 2,300 beef cattle and 1,000 dairy cows.
Ohio will now have to find other sources for milk and beef for inmates, since the farms produced almost everything needed in the prisons. The farms also grow corn, soybeans, hay and wheat to feed the animals and also for sale.
The union said Aramark, Ohio's private prison food vendor, has said it wants to replace real milk with powdered milk, which doesn't spoil.
The state will continue to operate a meat-processing plant at Pickaway Correctional Institution as a job training program.
Inmates also raise vegetables at eight facilities for foodbanks, a program that isn't affected by the shutdown and which the state hopes to expand.
Shutting down the farms will also reduce opportunities for smuggling contraband into prisons, Mohr said.
As many as 10 counties may see revenues increase as prison farm land currently not subject to taxes is sold and returned to the tax rolls.
Prison officials didn't have exact numbers, but the goal is to raise millions of dollars through the sale of land, particularly plots near highways that would be eligible for commercial development, said Stuart Hudson, the prison system's managing director of health care and fiscal operations.