The Michigan Department of Corrections is studying the feasibility of expanding its farming operations throughout the state’s prison system. But in many other states around the region, prison systems have closed down or scaled back similar facilities. Since the 1970’s, for instance, Wisconsin trimmed its operations from eleven farms, down to three. And just last year, Pennsylvania got out of the business entirely, shuttingdown all four of its remaining prison farms. As the Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Wendy Nelson reports in the second of a two-part series, prison farms offer some advantages… but some pretty big challenges, as well:
The Michigan Department of Corrections is studying the
feasibility of expanding its farming operations throughout
the state’s prison system.
But in many other states around the region, prison systems
have closed down or scaled back similar facilities.
Since the 1970’s, for instance, Wisconsin trimmed its
operations from eleven farms, down to three. And just last
year, Pennsylvania got out of the business entirely, shutting
down all four of its remaining prison farms.
As the Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Wendy Nelson
reports, prison farms offer some advantages… but some
pretty big challenges, as well.
Every day, the State of Michigan spends about
two-dollars-and-thirty-cents to feed each of its inmates.
That might not sound like a lot, but with forty-five-thousand
inmates, the tally for taxpayers comes to thirty-eight
million dollars a year.
Some states – like Georgia – have reduced these costs
somewhat by operating farms to help feed the prisoners.
And Michigan Department of Corrections director Bill Martin
thinks he can do the same, by expanding the state’s
“That’s always, in my mind, the driving force – how can we
do it better, for less money? Because the taxpayer says,
“look, I’ve only got so much to give, so I’m gonna ask that you
do it the best you can when I give it to you.” And that’s what
drives issues for me.”
And, Martin adds, there are some other practical benefits to
“It keeps another portion of the inmate population busy,
and a busy inmate is one that tends not to be trouble and
tends to be a better person once they’re released.”
About a hundred years ago, most of the country’s prisons
had farming operations – a practice that continued through
much of the 1900’s.
But over the past few decades, many of these farms have
In the early seventies, a governor’s task force in Wisconsin
studied that state’s prison farm system.
“And they came to the conclusion that farms in
corrections were antiquated, they weren’t providing
appropriate training for inmates going back to urban areas.
So they came out with a recommendation that the whole
farming system should be closed.”
Steve Kronzer is director of the Wisconsin Bureau of
He says eventually, a compromise was reached. And today,
the state operates three prison farms.
Kronzer says farms can still play an important role in the
correctional system. He says many prisoners have never
held a job before, and working on a farm teaches basic
employment skills, such as showing up on time and
carrying out assigned tasks.
In Wisconsin and most other states, prison farms only
employ minimum-security inmates, since the farms are
typically outside the secure perimeter of the prisons.
Even so, the issue of security has been cited as a reason to
close many prison farms in recent years.
And the possibility that Michigan may soon set up new farms
is bringing up old memories for the residents of Jackson –
where about fifteen years ago, two inmates walked off a
prison farm, broke into a house, and killed two
“And my mom hollered at me, she’s like, “well, get in the
house, ’cause they just found some people dead.”
“I worked with a lady who lived next door to the people
that were killed. And the people always felt pretty safe,
but I think that changed people’s minds.”
And the murders led to the closing of all of Jackson’s
Michigan Department of Corrections director Bill Martin
vows safety will be a top priority if prison farms expand in
Still, some think the idea could be a hard sell.
“I think the neighbors will have some things to say
about it. Right away the NIMBY thing will hit you right
between the ears, you know, ‘not in my backyard’”.
Bruce Bikle is an assistant professor of criminal justice at
Grand Valley State University.
He says he understands the neighbors’ fears, but in reality,
most escapees are captured without incident.
At the same time Michigan is looking to expand prison farms,
so, too, is Wisconsin. But the states are taking different
Wisconsin’s Steve Kronzer says his state will only expand
profitable operations on existing farms, and he says that
will happen slowly.
Kronzer says he’s skeptical that Michigan will be able to
shave much off the cost of feeding prisoners by creating a
statewide system of new farms.
“Well, you’d have to do your cost benefit analysis. If
you’re spending millions of dollars in taxpayer money to set
’em up, it takes a long time to pay that off.”
For his part, Michigan Department of Corrections Director
Bill Martin says some states have already shown that prison
farms save money. Martin points to the example of Georgia,
where inmates raise about forty-percent of what they eat.
“Georgia has been able to reduce their food costs very
dramatic. When you have forty-five-thousand inmates, if
you’re saving thirty cents a day, that’s a lot of money over a
year’s period of time, plus the other benefits that come with
it, it’s really a no-brainer.”
Cost analysis studies are now underway throughout the
Martin says if the results show that homegrown prison food
can indeed save taxpayer dollars, Michigan will buck the
trend toward closing prison farms, and could lead the way
for other states to do the same.
For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, I’m Wendy Nelson.