By Ann Marie O'Phelan Central Florida's Agri-Leader
Published: February 5, 2014
Beans, broccoli, cabbage, cantaloupe cauliflower, collards, cucumber, squash and zucchini. This list sounds like a delicious assortment of vegetables and fruits that you might find in a typical Florida garden. And it is. Only this garden is located at the intersection of CR-35 and CR-464, where Marion County inmates tend to a 125-acre farm as part of Marion County Sheriff's Office's (MCSO) inmate farm system. The vegetables and fruits are put to good use as they are used to supplement inmate meals as part of the Jail's Food Service Unit. In the Food Service Unit, other eligible inmates are busy preparing meals, with the fresh produce, eggs and meats harvested from the farm. Other components to the inmate farm include the growing of ornamental plants, which are put to use at county-side government facilities and animal husbandry, including cattle, swine and poultry. Master Sgt. David Hurst, the supervisor at the sheriff's inmate work farm, says it's a win-win for all. Taxpayers save money on expenses because foods are grown instead of purchased, while inmates learn valuable skills - ranging from animal science to horticulture. These skills can help also help inmates find employment once their time is served. The program is volunteer-based and inmates must be eligible for the program.
"It's beneficial to the inmates in other ways as well," said Hurst, who explained that the inmates are getting out of their cells, which helps alleviate inmate boredom and idleness. They are also getting some exercise and fresh air, which helps keep the inmates healthier. Along with a vegetable and fruit garden, the inmate work farm in Marion County has three chicken houses for egg production, nearly 50 head of hogs, 90 beef cows and three bulls. On county-owned property located on Carney Island, inmates help tend to several hundred orange trees and work to maintain the property that spans over 13 acres. In addition to these inmate farm and food service programs, inmates are also put to work at the University of Florida's Plant Science Research & Education Unit in Citra. At this location, they assist with a variety of research tasks on a 1,100-acre plot. This volunteer program is for inmates who are considered low-risk inmates serving a one-year sentence or less. For every 30 days worked, inmates can earn five days off their sentences. Twenty-five to 30 inmates at a time are put to work each day. Along with research opportunities, such as pollinating and grading, there is also a 40-acre turf operation where the inmates can learn about landscaping. "Some of the inmates have gone on to get jobs at golf courses or they wind up working for a landscaper," said Jim Boyer, coordinator of research for the UF program. Boyer explained that there are both male and female inmate work programs at the unit. All of these programs are part of larger inmate work program in Florida. All told there are roughly 892 acres located at over 53 different farms and gardens and five University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (IFAS) facilities, where inmates grow and harvest vegetables and other foods, such as eggs and meats. The yield is impressive. Approximately 10.4 million pounds of produce including broccoli, cabbage, cantaloupe, greens, peas, watermelon and other fruits and vegetables were harvested from July 2012 to June 2013. In the previous year, the numbers were equally strong as the yield was 10.3 million pounds during the same time period. According to the Florida Department of Corrections, 100,445 inmates were housed in its 55 state prisons (including seven private prisons). While not every inmate can work in a program such as a farm program, due to eligibility, it makes sense to utilize the free labor, which in turn cuts prison expenses and may assist with inmates' employment opportunities upon release.