A View from the Sawmill A New-old idea: Country work farmsI once told former County Sheriff Steve Peterson that my calling in life was to violate every known child labor law on the books, at least in regard to my own offspring. He laughed and responded, “Well, I know I’ll never see your kids in jail.”
By: Greg Hull, Lake County News Chronicle
I once told former County Sheriff Steve Peterson that my calling in life was to violate every known child labor law on the books, at least in regard to my own offspring. He laughed and responded, “Well, I know I’ll never see your kids in jail.”
To date he has been prophetic.
Many folks know we have a jail in this county. Most, thankfully, don’t know much about it. My knowledge comes from serving there for almost 10 years. (For the record, it was as a program volunteer, not an inmate.)
During my 10 years, I met folks from every walk of life, from two teenage girls who were nicknamed “Thelma and Louise” to an 81-year-old retired medical doctor. Some were well-educated, with graduate degrees; others were illiterate. Some had church backgrounds, including ministers, while others had never seen a Bible or opened a hymn book. Charges ranged from nuisance offenses to murder.
What they all had in common were their struggles and issues. In my non-scientific research, roughly 85 percent of the folks I met were in jail as a result of alcohol or chemical use and addiction. Ten percent were there for sexual crimes. Five percent were there for a variety of other offenses.
I don’t know the actual operating budget of our county jail, but I do know that it costs more than $50 per inmate per day to keep someone there. That covers food, facility, staff and other related expenses. Which means if the jail was full all the time, it would cost the taxpayers of Lake County nearly $550,000 per year. Some of those funds are recovered by “pay-to-stay” fees, where an inmate is charged a portion of that cost while incarcerated. Some is recovered from other counties and agencies that house prisoners there, and pay the fees. But taxpayers are mostly footing the bill.
One of the worst aspects of being in jail is the endless boredom. There is nothing to do, and all day to get it done - which makes the task of the jail staff more than a bit difficult. Imagine being in charge of up to 30 bored people who you can’t turn loose, and who don’t want to be where they are. And your choices to control or motivate them are very limited.
People, and our society, being what they are, can’t simply close the jail and turn everyone loose. Nor can we simply lock them all up naked in dark cells and feed them bread and water. But just putting them in cells or dormitories with nothing to do isn’t a good solution either. There clearly is a revolving-door dimension to our jail and prison populations.
I propose we go back to an old idea. The County Commissioners ought to look at developing an actual working farm for folks in jail. Not a brutal work camp of southern chain-gangs or Stalin’s Gulag, but an actual working farm where inmates would have productive work to occupy their time. Clearing land, tending gardens and greenhouses, caring for animals, cutting firewood – the chores that were once upon a time part and parcel of life around here.
The county has plenty of land, so a location shouldn’t be too hard to find. The inmates could garden and farm, producing many of their own foodstuffs, thereby reducing expenses. Work, I have come to passionately believe, is therapeutic. It is an essential aspect of dealing with chemical addictions. Busy people are by and large much happier people than those who are bored. Tired people, especially those tired from a day of productive labor, are easier to control, and much less likely to engage in mischief just because they can, or have nothing else to do.
This idea isn’t new or novel, it’s old. There is a reason that the State of Minnesota put a prison camp next to the Forestry Nursery in Willow River years ago. The idea was that the prisoners would help tend the nursery and then plant the trees. Somewhere, however, someone decided it was cruel and inhumane to make people work, and better for them to sit in cells and watch cable TV.
It seems to me that this is an idea where everyone is a winner. Taxpayers are winners because the cost of incarceration can be reduced, or at least subsidized. Inmates win, for their time will be more therapeutic and productive. Jail staff can be winners with a broader range of motivators and discipline, making their jobs less stressful. Recidivism could be reduced.
In a time of shrinking revenues and a slower economy, maybe we don’t need so many new ideas. We need to go back to some old ones.
A work farm could be a good place to start.
Greg Hull is owner and operator of Hull’s Sawmill, and a philosopher-at-large. His sons accuse him of implementing this idea at his sawmill while they were growing up.