1.20.2017 – Farm to Plate Update and More on Angola State Penitentiary

This week, we continued with orientation testimony and had a presentation of the Farm to Plate (F2P) Annual Report by the Vermont Sustainable Jobs Fund. Much has been written about F2P, created in 2009, and the news just keeps getting better. Original estimates indicated that if we doubled the consumption of Vermont-produced food, we could create 1,500-1,700 jobs and increase economic output over the next ten years. It’s been five years since implementation and 6,000 jobs have been created and 779 new food-related businesses have been established. F2P, along with the Working Lands Enterprise Initiative, has been a fantastic economic development tool and well worth the money we have invested in it. Hopefully, we will be able to continue those investments.

Last week I wrote about a field trip to Louisiana’s Angola State Penitentiary and some of the interesting things I learned about their programs there. Historically known for poor conditions and a high inmate mortality rate, Angola, over the last several decades, has instituted some philosophy and program changes that have made a big difference in the lives of the people who live there, as well as violence and recidivism rates.

We visited the historic “Red Hat” living facility and the inhumane conditions cannot be overstated. Concrete three-foot by six-foot cells with mattress-less concrete bunks were inhabited by 6-8 prisoners. When asked how the prisoners slept, we were told that they slept sitting up, on the floor, or “however they could”. Red Hat is so famous (infamous?) that it is on the National Register of Historic Places. When it stopped being used for people in 1972, it became a dog kennel.

The current racial make-up of the Angola population consists of 70% African-American and 30% white, which includes Asian and Hispanic. There is a strong mentorship program that had been very successful and some of the lifers said that their “mentees” sometimes called them after being released for support and advice.

The automotive tech and outdoor power equipment repair programs are run and taught by lifers. In fact, of the 6,000 prisoners who reside at Angola, half are lifers. Louisiana has a very strict mandatory life sentencing policy and men who were convicted of being involved in a gang murder at the age of 17 will spend their entire lives in prison. There are prisoners at Angola from 18 to 93 years of age. Angola has its own hospice program and cemeteries where inmates are buried if their families cannot afford to pick up their bodies and bury them.

A conversation has begun about the practicality of keeping an elderly person in prison when they committed the crime when they were 17. It costs $60 per day to keep a young person in prison but that amount can increase to $200 – $500 per day as that prisoner ages. While the family of the victims may disagree, there is an economic reality that the officials at Angola face. If an inmate has changed their life and been rehabilitated, perhaps they do deserve another chance at life on the outside. Of course for some, unless there is a caring network of family and/or friends, being released that late in life may actually be detrimental.

The lifers we met were very clear about their mission to help short-term inmates with their rehabilitation. Several said that it just made sense – they have friends and family on the outside and they don’t want them to be hurt. The big picture is that these people will get out and need something to do to make a living, so marketable skills are essential for re-entry. The mentorship program is strong and when they congregate for morning meeting, they each address the group by saying, “good morning, family”. As I mentioned in last week’s column, the faith-based aspect of everyday work has made a huge difference in the violence level (decreased by 90-95%).

The lifers we visited with talked about having to make a change in one’s mindset and “heart issues”. Building “soft skills”, healthy life styles, literacy, the ability to make good choices, and learning parenting skills are all seen as important as inmates develop plans for success. One lifer explained that when he mentors a new inmate, he asks him, “Who hurt you and what went wrong?” Frequently that person has never been asked that question and just knowing someone cares can make a difference in the new prisoner’s attitude and ability to make life changes.

Other opportunities that are offered include a wheel chair program called Wheels for the World. The prisoners restore wheel chairs that are then sent to countries in the developing world with their names on the chair – something to be proud of!

There is a horticultural program given through Baton Rouge Community College and a pesticide program certified through the Louisiana Department of Agriculture.

The Angola Prison Rodeo is a high point for those able to participate. Income from ticket sales (the general public is invited), inmate arts and crafts, and concessions help bring in funds that supports the special programs offered at the prison. Some of the art displayed at the prison museum was extremely good.

It’s not all roses at Angola. There is a tough attitude about fighting and if a hostage situation occurs the officials were clear that there is no negotiation – a tactical squad is sent in and staff is removed. There is a maximum security unit where men are confined 23 hours a day.

The visit to Angola was moving and inspirational and it is my hope that we can take some lessons from their experience as we find ways to rehabilitate those under the supervision of the Vermont Department of Corrections.