Farms reduce state spending to $1.51 per day for three meals per inmate
By SEANNA ADCOX
REMBERT, S.C.. -- A state prison will soon be home to South Carolina's largest dairy under one roof, as a $7 million expansion quadruples the herd at a prison farm and allows the state to sell millions of gallons of excess milk.
South Carolina's three prison farms save taxpayers more than $600,000 annually, as inmates work to produce all of the milk, eggs and grits -- and some vegetables -- served to 24,000 prisoners statewide. The new dairy at Wateree River Correctional Institution, set to open in January, could eventually more than double that savings, according to the state Corrections Department.
Its features will include fans and misters to keep cows cool in the summer, digital sensors of the milk temperature, and computers that monitor when cows are most productive.
The hope is to make farming operations self-sustaining, with profits covering all salaries, said Bert Dew, the agency's agriculture chief.
The extra savings are welcome in a state expecting a $1 billion shortfall in next year's budget. The prison agency has been allowed to operate in the red for several years, as lawmakers slashed agency budgets.
South Carolina is among 17 states nationwide with prison farms. Besides South Carolina, eight others have dairy operations -- California, Colorado, Michigan, Montana, Nevada, Ohio, Tennessee and Wisconsin, according to the National Correctional Industries Association's latest survey.
At 7,000 acres, Wateree's farm is by far the largest of the three in South Carolina's prison system.
More than 50,000 pounds of sweet potatoes grown there this year will be sent to prison cafeterias, but the farm's major crop is corn, which covers a quarter of the land. Other operations include a gristmill, where the corn is ground into grits for inmates and corn meal for cows; a sawmill, where fallen timber on prison property is converted into construction lumber; and 300 head of beef cattle, with calves sold at market to generate cash for inmate meals.
Duane, who worked in construction before being sentenced to 13 years for driving drunk in a fatal car crash, is among the inmates building the new dairy using wood from the prison sawmill. With four years left, he said he'd much rather work outside than pass the time idly in prison, no matter the temperature.
"I enjoy what I do," said the inmate, whose full identity could not be given under prison policy. "A lot of fellas out here are willing to learn. The ones willing to learn, they jump right in and give you a hand."
Because of the farms, the state spends $1.51 daily on three meals per inmate. Agency director Jon Ozmint said that's among the lowest, if not the lowest, food costs among state prison systems.
"This does a great service for the state," Dew said. "We're using the inmates to work. We're using land that belongs to the state to furnish food for them. They produce a large portion of their food, and we're hoping in the near future it will be even more."
The state "hires" qualifying minimum-security inmates to work on the farm. In return, they get time off their sentences -- two days shaved off for every five-day workweek, and three days off for a seven-day workweek.
Work for the roughly 200 prisoners varies from driving tractors to shoveling feed.
Whenever a job is open, inmates quickly line up to fill it, said Warden Donald Beckwith.
The pluses for society, he said, is that the inmates learn a trade, and they're easier to manage.
"When they're out here, it's a physical, demanding, labor-intensive job, so when they get back in the evening, they're worn out," Beckwith said. "They don't have excess energy to burn off by doing rambunctious things."
The current dairy, built in 1985, consists of 220 cows generating 500,000 gallons of milk yearly. Onsite, the milk is reduced to 2 percent fat, pasteurized, vitamin-fortified and packaged into 6-gallon bags shipped to prisons statewide.
The new, 27-acre dairy -- funded with a $6 million loan to be repaid with milk sales within 10 years -- will open with 500 cows and should reach its 1,000-cow capacity by summer. At full capacity, the dairy should produce 1.8 million gallons of excess milk yearly for sale, and its new equipment will be able to package milk and juices into single-serve containers.
State officials say South Carolina's 95 dairies produce only about a third of milk consumed in the state, so the rest has to be hauled in from elsewhere. By producing the milk at the prison, consumers should benefit because lower freight costs should mean lower prices at markets, John Wilson, senior vice president and chief fluid marketing officer for Dairy Farmers of America.
Some inmates find work in their new trade after prison, officials said.
Others take away a work ethic, Dew said: "They're learning that for everything you do it takes effort. You get up, you go to work, you do your job and you go home."