Public Policy Forum Blog

Some states see economic benefit from prison farms

Milwaukee County Parks Director Sue Black's assertion last week that her department lacks the funds to take over the Farm and Fish Hatchery has reignited debate about the farm. This year's county budget transferred the program – a perennial target for cuts by the Walker administration -- from the sheriff’s office to the parks department midyear, at a reduced funding amount. The County Board's finance committee recommended a modified version of the plan to move the program, and the issue will be discussed by the full County Board on Thursday.

Supporters tout several benefits of the program: the harvested crops are donated to food pantries; the fish stock county ponds; and inmates learn work skills. Those less enthusiastic about the program question its appropriateness for a correctional environment and its necessity given the county's severe financial challenges.

Interestingly, Milwaukee's discussion about closing its farm due to lack of funds comes at a time when corrections facilities in other parts of the country are looking to prison and jail farms as a way to save money. Governing magazine, for example, cites two correctional gardens employed to feed inmates.

One Connecticut prison's savings of more than $5,000 in the summer of 2009 influenced the Corrections Commissioner to replicate prison farms across the state. Those prisons that already have gardens are being asked to expand them. In addition to lower food costs, savings include paying less to dispose of waste at the prison (kitchen scraps are composted), and not having to pay for flowers in landscaping (flowers are grown from donated seeds).

Meanwhile, an Ohio sheriff was so pleased with the way his jail farm is feeding the inmates that he plans to introduce a chicken-raising effort, estimating that for every 50 donated chickens the inmates raise, the jail cafeteria will get 300 pounds of meat. His actions, which in addition to growing food included eliminating all red meat and hot dinners, saved $25,000 on food costs in 2009.

Milwaukee's farm operation differs from the examples in Connecticut and Ohio in that the crops are used to feed the poor and not to feed the inmates. Prior to Milwaukee County's decision to privatize the House of Correction's food service in 2003, the crops were used to supplement inmate meals. Following privatization, however, Hunger Task Force stepped in to distribute the unwanted produce to area food pantries. In addition, while both the Connecticut prison and Ohio jail received their gardening supplies through donations, Milwaukee has found private support harder to come by.

It remains to be seen whether Milwaukee County's program will survive, but the Connecticut and Ohio programs show that in some cases prison farms may be opportunities for savings, as opposed to drains on already challenged budgets.