by Matt Clarke
On April 13, 2016, Gary Mohr, Director of the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction (ODRC), announced plans to phase out farming operations at all ten of the state’s prison farms, and sell around 7,000 of the 12,300 acres of prison farmland.
Mohr’s announcement came just a little over a year after the ODRC requested and received $8.9 million from the Ohio General Assembly for improvements at the prison system’s farms. The closures will affect as many as 220 prisoners employed during peak periods; 72 staff positions will also be impacted.
The Ohio Civil Services Employees Association (OCSEA), which represents 30,000 state employees, including those whose positions at ODRC farms will be eliminated, said the closures would affect 56 farm coordinators who are union members.
“Unfortunately, we believe the impetus for this change is purely political,” said union president Christopher Mabe. “It has nothing to do with [ODRC’s] core mission of recidivism or safety. This is about dollars and cents for corporate interests.”
The Ohio prisons operating the farms include Chillicothe (1,809 acres), Mansfield (1,485 acres), Marion (995 acres), Pickaway (1,200 acres) and Southern Correctional Complex (578 acres). The prison system will no longer raise about 2,300 beef cattle and 1,000 milk cattle, but will continue to operate its 21,000-square-foot meat processing plant located at the Pickaway Correctional Institution. The money from selling the farm land will reportedly be used to fund rehabilitation programs.
“We’re going to be able to touch a lot more inmates and focus on their reentry,” said Director Mohr. “Farming has not been an area where we’re placing people when they go out in the community. We want to focus more on prison enterprises inside the walls.”
Mohr added that prison farms were an anachronism that were no longer in line with the goal of preparing prisoners for life on the outside, as they provided jobs for only 220 prisoners and few continued to work in farming-related positions following their release. He also cited the security risk that farms present, as people can drop off contraband which farm workers could then smuggle into the prisons.
Yet when the ODRC sought funds to upgrade its farm facilities in 2015, the department said prison agricultural programs were important “to provide offenders with valuable skills that can be used in the community upon their release.”
OCSEA’s Mabe said the prison farm closures were decided “without much explanation, rationale, or plan,” and were instigated by “powerful private food industry lobbyists, like the meat industry, which have been lobbying the Ohio statehouse in an effort to shut down prison farms and take over the business.”
Since selling off its dairy herd, the ODRC spends an extra $2.6 million a year to buy milk for around 50,000 prisoners. An existing state contract with four Ohio dairies was expanded in May 2016; the prison system uses roughly 1.3 million gallons of milk annually.
Aramark, a private food services company, was hired in September 2013 to provide meals at ODRC facilities; the firm, which has been cited for maggots found in kitchen areas and other problems, has announced plans to replace fresh milk with powdered milk in state prisons. In 2015, Aramark successfully lobbied the ODRC to rebuff an OCSEA attempt to win back its prison food services contract. [See: PLN, Dec. 2015, p.1].
Another potential loser from the proposed farmland sale is the Ohio Association of Food Banks, which has received 800,000 pounds a year of produce grown at prison farms.
Rick Savors, media relations manager for the Ohio Facilities Construction Commission, said much of the money requested for the improvements at prison farms had already been spent, though the announced farm sales did halt the purchase of about $350,000 worth of equipment originally included in the ODRC’s $8.9 million funding request.
On May 5, 2016, OCSEA filed a lawsuit seeking to prevent the farm closures. The suit alleged the closures violated the ODRC’s employee contract even though the department had announced it expected to find other job positions for the farm employees.
The case was dismissed in September 2016. Three months later the prison farms closed and their equipment was auctioned off in what Mabe called a “fire sale.” The state received about $4.5 million for 3,186 head of dairy and beef cattle, plus farm equipment that included tractors, fences, hay wagons and a warmer for bull semen.
“Pennies on the dollar,” Mabe said of the auction proceeds. “If [ODRC] had done what it had planned to do and expanded our dairy and beef operation, we could have saved millions for the taxpayer,” he added. “This has always been a solution looking for a problem.”
ODRC spokeswoman JoEllen Smith said the $5 million annual payroll costs for the 72 prison farm employees could be better spent on security and career training.
The Ohio General Assembly also acted to authorize the sale of the farmland. According to a June 28, 2017 article in the Columbus Dispatch, the current state budget includes a provision to sell nearly 7,000 acres of farmland through ‘“negotiated real-estate purchase agreements,’ competitive bidding or public auctions,” which may include no-bid sales.
Sources: Columbus Dispatch, Mansfield News Journal, www.examiner.org, www.farmanddairy.com
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