After being away for a few days and reading all the threads on prison labor
I wish to respond to a few points. First is the notion that we can spend
-- or not spend -- our way out of an untenable economic system. This is
something that has been nagging at me since I started working in
sustainable ag last year. A lot of people put a lot of effort into their
consumer choices, and that is certainly important. We all make choices
about how to spend our money, what sorts of ag we support and so on. On a
small, local scale that can make a difference. Sometimes even boycotts
work. But don't think for a minute that these choices will change the
underlying economic system. All the agonizing decisions made about which
products to "support" (notice how we have created a euphemism which changes
the basic transaction of buying a product into something more than it often
is) do not change the fact that someone was paid less to make it than the
product sold for, and someone else is keeping the profit. That's
capitalism. Corporations using prison labor are no more or less "bad" than
the local food coop -- they just have lower labor costs (although some at
our coop may quibble over that statement)!
Unless you buy everything from independent artisans and farmers who do all
the work themselves, you are "buying in" to the exploitation of others.
And even if you do, they have to get their supplies from someone, and you
can bet there's a worker down the line who made something these people are
using. Digging into the sordid past of our consumables makes for some
tough bedtime reading. The unsavory conditions -- for labor and the
environment -- that our products are created in can be hard face. I have
seen some acquaintances take this realization so badly that they have taken
extreme measures to try to extract themselves from the system: never riding
in a car again because the were against the Gulf Oil War; not washing
because they don't want to harm microorganisms (seriously!); yelling at a
bakery clerk in the local coop about the fact that they are renovating the
floor and throwing away perfectly good construction waste (this really
The problem with such extremism is that it leads to wacky contradictions --
like my old upstairs neighbor who didn't want to use his refrigerator
because he was against nuclear power but somehow felt fine about storing
his ice cream in my freezer! Or the friends who don't own a TV but sent
their kids to our house to watch videos.
But back to exploitation (which Marx defined simply as the act of an owner
keeping the surplus value generated by a worker's efforts). Exploitation
is the foundation of all economic activity, including farming. But people
need jobs and people need money. And prisoners are no different. They are
going to have to earn a wage once released. And even if they never work in
ag again, they may have learned new skills or ideas that will serve them in
And now on to profit. Profit should NOT be a dirty word to farmers. In
fact, the state of farming -- organic or otherwise -- would be better off
if farmers spent more time thinking about profitability. Sustainability is
about more than the environment -- farms need to also sustain farm families
-- emotionally, socially and economically or we won't have any more farms!
Someone posted this quote: " The free market system is very efficient in
establishing prices, but is completely incapable in establishing costs."
I would state that it is the producer who is responsible for understanding
her costs, and if she can't make a living because her costs outweigh the
price, she needs to figure out why. A whole farm planner told a story at a
conference about a farmer in Kansas who went through the process of farm
planning and learned that for 40 years his wheat crop had been losing
money. She asked him if he would continue to grow wheat. His reply? "I
guess so -- this is the wheat state, isn't it?" Now there are plenty of
external factors which keep farmers from earning a decent wage, but don't
you think it is important for farmers to at least make the decisions they
can to affect their own bottom lines? I met an organic farmer in VT at
this same conference. He studies the profitability of each crop he grows
and if it does not make him enough money, he never grows it again. And he
is a happy, successful farmer who can spend more time with his children and
less time on vegetables that don't pay their way.
Finally, here are two articles about another project which uses inmates in
ag which I wrote for our newsletter.
Profile: The Garden of Miracles/Jardín de Milagros
Bridging the rural-urban divide is not easy, but one place where that row
is being hoed is the Garden of Miracles in Springfield, MA. The Garden of
Miracles is a collaboration between the Hampden County Sheriff's
Department, NOFA and now CISA. It’s a community gardening project with a
twist: the organic gardens are built and maintained by public housing
residents and minimum security pre-release inmates from the Hampden County
House of Correction. Betsy Corner is the project’s coordinator.
“We want to bring together country and urban residents as well as community
and prison residents.” says Betsy. The goals of the project are to teach
work skills to inmates, beautify public housing and grow fresh, organic
food for project residents. The Springfield Housing Authority gave
permission to start a garden at its Riverview elderly housing complex last
year and pitched in by removing old concrete from an abandoned playground.
Then Betsy and her crew began the difficult process of enriching the
compacted, gritty urban soil with compost and loam.
The Hampden County Correctional Center crew does the bulk of the work.
Minimum security inmates scheduled for release volunteer for places on the
work crews, which offer interesting outdoor work, a chance to learn new
skills and time off their sentence. They are supervised by a corrections
officer who helps with Spanish translation and works with the crew. Betsy
says that both work crew members and residents get excited about the
gardening, and some have worked in agriculture in the past.
Many lessons are learned throughout the growing season, but one predominant
theme emerges. “Most of the inmates did not succeed in school. Gardening
lessons don’t necessarily work. This is a process of doing and learning at
the same time, not learning then doing,” says Betsy. “You have to let the
inmates and residents try out their ideas to see if they will work.” Betsy
recalls how Narciso, an 86 year old Latino housing project resident,
insisted on putting in raised beds like he used to do in Puerto Rico.
Betsy was certain that the sandy beds would dry out too fast. And they
did, especially during last summer’s drought. This year, she says, Narciso
insists on flat beds for the garden!
The garden also changes the way inmates and residents relate to each other.
“It is important to feel appreciated, to grow food for someone who is
grateful and happy to receive it.” says Betsy. “Inmates are not used to
feeling appreciated for what they do. This project helps reacquaint them
with the community.”
In the end, though, what people remember about a vegetable garden is what
it produces. While last year’s harvest was affected by the drought –
keeping urban gardens well watered is difficult – the excitement of the
residents and inmates was high. Calabaza (a tropical squash), cilantro,
tomatoes, and much more were eagerly consumed by all.
Betsy is currently seeking funding for the project with the help of CISA
and Hampshire College. We encourage you to help out in any way you can.
Deliveries of compost or manure will be gratefully accepted. Contact Betsy
at (413) 624-8858.
Using Pre-Release Inmates on Your Farm
Jim Pitts , CISA board member and owner of Delta Organic Farm in Amherst,
participated in a program that places minimum security, pre-release inmates
from the Hampden County Correction Center on a local farm for a day of
work. Inmates bring their own tools and lunches, and work a 6-hour day on
“There’s always something that needs doing on the farm,” said Jim. “It was
great to have them come out, especially at critical times – putting straw
on strawberries, planting potatoes, trellising tomatoes.”
Betsy Corner stresses that the inmates are most productive when they see
the farmer working alongside them and when they feel appreciated,
especially with food. “We became good friends,” said Jim. “We always had
a treat at the end of the day – they loved Penny’s cookies – and sang songs
and told stories. It was a great social event plus we got a lot of work
done.” For more information about working with inmates on your farm,
contact Betsy Corner at (413)624-8858 or Toni Atmore at the Hampden County
Correction Center, (413)547-8000 x 2180.
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