I find prisons to be generally counterproductive and useless, at least if our goal as a society is to reform and rehabilitate our criminals; over three-quarters of state prisoners, for instance, are arrested again within five years of getting out of prison. Either prison itself is not enough of a deterrent to crime, or its reformative effects are not strong enough to make prisoners avoid bad habits once they’re out of jail. The two options, I guess, are to either make the punitive aspects of prison life more punitive, or make its reformative aspects actually reform. Thankfully, a few facilities are opting for the latter:
Using local beans, breads, cereal, eggs, meat and milk, [the Montana Women’s Prison] spends about $60,000 a year on local food — 30 percent of its food budget. Started back in 2007, the prison’s local food program has grown to include an on-premise greenhouse, which boosts production and trains inmates in gardening and food production.
With these programs, prisons are equipping inmates with more than just a high quality meal — they’re giving them a second chance.
For my money, there are few things more restorative than acquiring the skills to garden well. Prisoners, of course, may be in need of a wide range of vocational instruction, but to train inmates in “gardening and food production” is to offer them a skill at once both indispensable and redemptive. Crime destroys, while good farming quite literally builds: is there a better dichotomy to which we could present our country’s prisoners, and a better and cheaper lesson in the distinctly possible?
If I were running a prison, I’d encourage my agriculturally-inclined inmates to seek farming as a job or a career after getting out. The benefits are myriad, not the least of which is farming’s wonderful tendency to preempt criminal activity: as Joel Salatin has pointed out somewhere or another, a farm tends to keep you occupied all day and in bed by 10:00 at night, which kind of rules out gang-banging as a day job. But farmers do face a number of hurdles, not the least of which are from the government, as a few Sacramento citizens have recently discovered:
Now the Yisraels grow everything from kale to beets, asparagus and wheat. They have olive and fig trees, bees and chickens. Now that they have healthy and fruits and vegetables to eat, they hope to spread the wealth. But, they hit a roadblock.
“How can I get it to my community without coming up against the powers that be?” Chanowk Yisrael asked.
Sacramento city and county ordinances prevent the Yisraels from selling what they grow on their property. They could sell their produce at farmer’s markets; but as a small operation, they said the cost is too great.
“I was very disappointed to find out that those types of laws were on the books,” Chanowk Yisrael said. “For the most part, all of the work has been self-financed. We put our money, our sweat, our tears into this and to not be able to turn it around is disheartening.”
Why do “city and county ordinances” outlaw the selling of one’s own product on one’s own land? What is the point of such a dumb law? The bureaucrats of Sacramento might stumble and stutter and try and to effect some kind of answer, but there is no answer: these laws are pointless and destructive and borne of ignorance and stupidity. Perhaps the Yisraels can find some sort of loophole—maybe they can take a page from the raw milk industry’s playbook and sell some kind of clever share in their farmland—but then again they shouldn’t have to; it is their labor and they should be free to dispose of it as they see fit. Meanwhile, in a program at San Diego’s Richard J. Donovan Correctional Facility, prisoners are “hired as farmers and instructed in sustainable agricultural practices.” What a strange country we live in, in which imprisoned men and women are taught how to grow and produce food—and a few hours away, free men and women are forbidden to sell it. How are we to make sense of such insanity?