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Prison farm program lets cons grow their own food

September 03, 1998|By MATTHEW BIENIEK

Twelve prisoners working in the pilot agriculture program at the Roxbury Correctional Institution south of Hagerstown can pick 8,000 ears of corn in about four hours.

The inmates, working for $3.50 a day, are raising their own food.

"But the important thing is it gets the inmates out of the cells and to work in the fields," said Del. D. Bruce Poole, D-Washington, who had pushed for the revival of the prison farm program.

Poole toured the farm operation Thursday with Stuart O. Simms, secretary of the state Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services, to see firsthand how the program is working.

Poole later said he and Simms came away impressed, and envision the program being expanded to other prisons in the state.

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"I think it's going to be a great program," he said.

Farming at the prison complex started in 1935 and at one time employed more than 100 inmates who maintained a dairy herd, raised hogs and beef cattle, and grew crops such as potatoes and sweet corn on 400 acres.

The farm was phased out for a variety of reasons, including economic feasibility and concerns for the prisoners' civil rights. The dairy operation was shut down in 1968 and the last beef cattle were sold in 1975.

But in recent years, Poole and the rest of the county's legislative delegation urged prison officials to bring back a farming program back as a means of teaching prisoners a variety of skills and developing a work ethic that they can take with them after they are released.

Last year state officials agreed to allow the return of prison farming on a three-year trial basis. Poole said he is confident the program will continue to expand at the prison, with more inmates working and more crops being grown.

"I just see a lot of positives," he said.

The current program is much smaller than the earlier farm operation. Six prisoners regularly work the farm and orchard, said Jeff Sollenberger, manager of the project for state use industries, the prison agency that oversees the farm program and other inmate projects.

At harvest time Sollenberger brings in extra prisoners from other prison industries to help out.

The corn from Roxbury is used throughout the prison complex, which includes the Maryland Correctional Institution and the Maryland Correctional Training Center. The three prisons use 8,000 ears a meal, he said.

Sollenberger said there is only one major problem facing the program - deer are eating up much of the corn crop. The deer munch on about four out of five ears - cutting what could have been a crop of 200,000 ears down to about 36,000.

"There's a herd of about 100 over there," said Sollenberger, pointing to a wooded area across from the prison farm and orchard.

The deer don't eat the full ear, just the tender tops - but what's left cannot be used to feed inmates, Sollenberger said.

One reason the chewed ears can't be used for prisoners is that knives would be needed to cut off the portion of the ear the deer munched, and knives are kept in short supply at the prison, even in the cafeteria, he said.

Poole wondered if the Union Rescue Mission would take the unused ears.

"I'll deliver them if they will," said Sollenberger.

Simms and Poole also toured the prison aquaculture pilot program and checked out construction on an addition to the prison upholstery plant.

Staff Writer Guy Fletcher contributed to this story.

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