Prison Break

September 9, 2013 09:22 PM
Prison Break

Dairy program offers marketable skills for South Carolina offenders

Come October 2013, a dedicated dairyman named Joel* will be free to start a new job. His credentials include hands-on herdsman experience, formal training, references and enthusiasm. He’s willing to relocate.

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Joel currently works at Wateree Dairy, operated by the South Carolina Department of Corrections (SCDOC) in Rembert, S.C. The scenic 8,000-acre farm holds Wateree River Correctional Facility, along with modern dairy, beef, crop and greenhouse operations. Plans are underway to expand the 500-cow dairy herd (primarily Holsteins, 10% Jerseys) to 1,000 milking cows by the end of 2013 and 1,500 milking by 2014.

The oldest prison in South Carolina, Wateree is considered a medium security, Level II facility, meaning it has single-fenced perimeters and electronic surveillance. No employees carry lethal weapons inside, except during transport of inmates.

While serving a sentence, Joel has completed a comprehensive training program he hopes that potential dairy employers will find attractive.

The Wateree Dairy Training School (DTS) is the brain child of Nicholas Julian, the dairy’s assistant manager. He pitched the idea of launching a formal training program when he interviewed for the job in August 2011. His goal was to help inmates develop marketable skills for the outside while they have meaningful work on the inside. 

Julian’s credentials serve him well at the prison dairy. A New York native who previously parlayed his U.S. Army service into an Empire State senior investigator position, he has also worked as a manager on a 1,000-cow dairy in his home state. He holds a Bachelor of Science degree in psychology and recently started graduate theology studies.

Having immediately garnered the dairy manager’s approval, the DTS, under Julian’s tutelage, is now an approved vocational educational program for the Palmetto Unified School District, which supports the SCDOC’s effort to rehabilitate inmates while providing Wateree Dairy with a high-quality workforce.

"Our goal is that, when released, our inmates will possess motivation and skill sets to become productive members of society and fill ever-increasing jobs in agriculture," Julian says.

To qualify for the voluntary DTS, inmates must first complete three months working on the dairy with no disciplinary actions, have at least 12 months remaining on their sen­tences, commit that time to working on the dairy exclusively, exhibit at least 8th grade reading skills, be nominated by a dairy supervisor and complete an interview with Julian. While 50 of Wateree’s 800 inmates work on the dairy, just eight select individuals are currently enrolled in the DTS.

Trainees are typically non-violent offenders with designated release dates. These men have also earned the right to stay in dorm-style housing rather than cells.

Participating inmates have "intern status" and are required to complete 780 hours, including supervised hands-on training (70%) and classroom instruction with testing (30%). The curriculum features rota­tion through four courses, includ­ing milker and processing (six weeks), animal health (six weeks), cattle breeder (four weeks), and calf and heifer rearing (five weeks).

Milker/Processing covers the udder system, milking procedures, identifying and treating mastitis, milk quality/quality assurance, milk withholding and antibiotic residue, cow handling and grouping, and milk processing/regulations.

Animal Heath addresses cow anatomy, ailments and diseases, identifying and examining sick cows, pharmacology, administering medications, milk withholding and antibiotic residue, transitioning cow groups, herd monitoring, cow behavior, nutrition and feeding, hoof care, mastitis and record keeping.

Cattle Breeder focuses on the estrous cycle, AI, managing a rolling herd, dairy cow traits, breeding for herd improvement, reading sire statistics and dam/sire pairing.

Calf and Heifer Rearing includes ailments and diseases, identifying and examining sick calves, vaccinations, pharmacology and meat withholds, administering medications, transitioning calf and heifer groups, weaning, herd monitoring, nutrition and feeding, barn hygiene, care and management, and record keeping.

Upon completion of these four courses plus the required six-hour dairy Spanish and employment and skill development courses, trainees earn "Junior Herdsman" certification.

DTS participants typically put in five eight-hour shifts per week on the farm, so they complete the curriculum in five months. They are not paid for their work.

"We start their training in the milk parlor, where we can evaluate their competencies, work ethic and comfort around cows," says Julian, who the inmates respectfully call "Mr. Nick."

Supervisors must make certain all inmates stay within designated physical boundaries on the farm, and a head count is recorded every two hours per shift.

"Two other differences between a prison dairy and any dairy on ‘the outside’ are that our work schedules are more reliable and we’re never short of help," Julian wryly notes.

Wateree’s state-of-the-art processing plant supplies milk for all 26 correctional institutions in South Carolina, which house a total of some 22,000 inmates. The Wateree herd is currently averaging 60 pounds of milk per cow per day. Surplus milk is sold through Dairy Farmers of America.

Stakeholder support for Wateree’s DTS is strong. Training materials were donated by the University of Wisconsin, Virginia Tech University and the University of Georgia (UGA). Additionally, on-farm training is routinely provided by Genex, ABS, Southern States, Zoetis, Ecolab, Wateree’s local veterinarian and UGA veterinary school faculty and students.

Wateree inmates consider working on the dairy a privilege and are dedicated to providing great care for all the animals. "Our herd mortality rate is only 1% because our guys are such good observers," Julian boasts. "What’s more, the work here is a form of animal therapy. Our guys love taking care of the animals."

The first graduate of Wateree DTS, Mark* has been happily employed as a herdsman on a 500-cow South Carolina dairy since his release in August 2012.

"Mark got recommendations from us and some of our vendors," Julian says. "We were pleased to say ‘we have someone who takes his work seriously, is talented and can handle the responsibility.’ "

DTS graduate John* recently started a herdsman position on a 200-cow dairy in North Charleston, S.C. Three other inmates, including Joel, have completed the training program and are working as team leaders at Wateree dairy while serving out their sentences.

"My current assignment is dairy health team leader, but anything related to cows I can do," Joel says. "I would like to get a job as a herdsman when I leave here this fall."

Other states have prison farms that offer work and training to inmates. But Julian believes that Wateree offers the only formal prison dairy training program in the country with documented structure, academic requirements and state-issued completion certificates.

"Our program is a win/win for the dairy industry and inmates," Julian says. "We teach job skills, life skills, responsibility and teamwork. Even if our trainees don’t end up working on a dairy, they have these skills wherever they go." 

For information about the Wateree DTS, e-mail Julian at

*Editor’s note: The South Carolina Department of Corrections does not permit last names or faces of its inmates to be published in feature articles.

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