Holy cow: In this state program, prisoners double as dairy farmers

The sounds of cows chewing on the field pierce the usually quiet, still air of Leesburg. A few yards away, a breeze forces the still growing corn stalks to sway in the summer heat. The farm itself looks just like many of the other farms in New Jersey.

But instead of a picket fence surrounding the corn, there is barbed wire. And workers are not wearing checkered shirts and wide brimmed hats. Men in orange jumpsuits are tending to the cows.

The Bayside State Prison is home to a rare site in the New Jersey correctional system. The prison, which holds about 1,700 inmates, is the site of an operational dairy farm as well as home to corn fields worked by inmates themselves.

The prison in Cumberland County is just one of the eight correctional facilities in the state that is part of the AgriIndustires initiative.

Th program, which launched in 1977, is aimed at providing inmate with work opportunities to help reduce recidivism, but it’s also self-sustaining.

Offenders work in food production plants to provide dairy, produce and beef which then is used to feed not only inmates but it is also sent to programs that are overseen by the state’s Human Services and Military and Veteran’s Affairs departments. The program brings in about $11.5 million every year, according to stat figures.

Currently, the dairy farm at Bayside is milking 49 cows that are producing between 300 and 350 gallons of milk a day. In the fall, when more of the heifer cows will be available, they expect to have 130 cows that will produce between 800 and 900 gallons a day.

The farm work and duties are overseen by staff members such as Steve Novakowski, an institutional training instructor at Bayside.

“The milk is sent and processed to Jones Farm in Trenton,” said Novakowski. “The processed milk will eventually be sent out to all the state institutions. It helps the state because it does not have to buy milk and it saves money. If we are making it, we are saving the state money. It is self-sustaining.”

Novakowski, who has worked for the state for more than 21 years, is one of the people who teaches the inmates how to milk, feed and perform tasks on the dairy farm. He also shows them equipment that some inmates have never used.

“I have had guys come to me and say that they never picked up a shovel in their life,” said Novakowski.

Novakowski has seen a bunch of inmates come and go through the farm. He has also heard of instances where formerly incarcerated people who worked at the Bayside farm take those skills with them when their sentences are over and land jobs throughout the state.

“Not every guy that has come here has hit rock bottom,” he said. “They just made a mistake in life. The guys that have hit rock bottom or have on the street, they leave here with a good work ethic and an idea of what it takes to make it in life as far as getting up every day and getting a job. I hope they can apply what they learned here. I hope they can turn their life around.”

For the inmates that work on the farm, it is a privilege. To work on the farm detail, the inmate has to be classified as a lower-risk prisoner, especially since the farm is in the minimum-security section of the prison property. Inmates who are assigned to the dairy are able to work up to seven hours a day and earn between $4.10 and $6 a day.

One of the current inmates who works at the facility is 43-year-old Otis Christian. Christian was a tractor-trailer driver until he was sent to prison for a weapons offense. He currently has three months remaining on his sentence. For Christian, the experience has been quite different than his old job.

“When I first came here, I was a little scared of the animals,” Christian said. “Now that I have been here for a minute, they basically know us. We are all one. Before it was difficult but now we see them as family.”

Christopher Parker came to Bayside after violating his parole related to a robbery and aggravated assault charges. For Parker and the other inmates on the dairy detail, the days are arduous. After going to breakfast and working out for a little bit, he has to go to the farm in the afternoon to feed, milk and groom the cows. Although Parker and the prisoners say they are exhausted when the day is over, he enjoys working on the farm.

“It is a good experience for me,” said Parker. “It is something that I can change my pace, change my way of thinking. It is hard but sometimes you have to buckle down but you know when enough is enough and straighten up and fly right. It is a great change for me.”

Stephan Walton, who is in prison for selling opioid narcotics, is one of the people who will be looking for a job after leaving.

“I would never have thought a city guy like me would have learned a skill like this,” said a laughing Walton. “I had to do time for it but in lieu of everything that is going on with me, it is a good lesson I learned because opioid addiction is a very big thing in our country today and I do not want to be a part of it, this is good for me. It is very therapeutic. The animals take care of me and I like to take care of them.”

Source: New Jersey On-Line LLC

Link: New Jersey On-Line LLChttp://www.nj.com/cumberland/index.ssf/2017/07/see_what_happens_in_dairy_that_is_run_by_state_inm.html

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