Unlocking Hidden Farmers: Part 3
Over the last few articles, we’ve explored groups of untapped potential farmers. These are groups of people who derive additional benefit from aquaponics farming beyond the food itself. These groups use their gardens for purposes like education, rehabilitation, and job training. So far we’ve discussed schools using aquaponics to teach a wide range of topics with cutting edge technology. We’ve also explored our experiences working with the developmentally disabled and the Arc, a nationwide organization who provides job-training activities to this population. This month, we are going to take a look at a new hidden group of farmers, prisoners and ex-convicts.
Prisoners in the U.S.
To our national shame, incarceration is a booming industry in the United States. Nearly one of every four prisoners worldwide is held in American confinement. That is 2.3 million US prisoners of 10.1 million worldwide, as of 2010. That means roughly one of every one-hundred Americans is a prisoner. The cost to operate these prisons is over $74 billion dollars, every year, with the taxpayers footing $37 billion dollars of that bill.
So what do the American taxpayers receive for their money? A system that churns out repeat offenders really does not do much for society except burden it. A full 67.5% of prisoners released in 1994 were rearrested within 3 years with 51.8% actually returning to jail.
Without debating all of the reasons why America has such a disproportional prisoner population compared to the rest of the world, it is easy to see that the prison system itself has its faults. It costs the taxpayer billions of dollars, burdening you and I with the cost of caring for criminals. Additionally, prison itself seems to be relatively ineffective, with over half of all released prisoners returning to prison within 3 years.
Alternatives to the industrial prison system have been gaining popularity in modern times, ranging from prison reforms, such as transitioning the purpose of imprisonment from punishment to rehabilitation, to outright abolishment of the prison system. However, there is one novel solution that has actually been around for a very long time.
Prison farms are very old, having existed in one form or another since agriculture existed. However, the modern industrialized prison system has adopted the prison farm model to provide labor to farmers and therapeutic benefits to prisoners. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Prison_farm
With the rest of this article, we will explore the reasons why prison farms, and prison aquaponics farms specifically, present such an amazing opportunity to unlock a new segment of hidden farmers.
Repaying a Debt to Society
There was a point in time when prison was really intended to be a punishment on those foolish enough to commit a crime. The indecency of the whole experience was intended to deter would-be criminals from their evil ways. Recently, sentiments have changed and the thinking behind imprisonment has become more compassionate for the state of being that causes one to commit a crime.
Instead of punishment and deterrence, prisons are now looking to rehabilitate their inmates and prepare them for a law abiding life once they return back to free society. This includes repaying their debt to society for their crime.
Growing food for the local community with in-prison aquaponics systems creates a meaningful method of giving back to the community they harmed by their crime. Providing a stable base of food for the surrounding area helps lessen the burden on taxpayers with low-cost healthy food options.
Prison labor is already being used in many industries to get dirt-cheap labor because prisoners are not entitled to the federal minimum wage. Harnessing the prisoners’ energy to provide food, a basic human need, lessens tax burdens by directly affecting the price of local food, while simultaneously providing the prisoner with a source of pride in helping their community. This puts them on the path to healthy rehabilitation.
Therapeutic Activity and Wholesome Food Drives Rehabilitation
Prisoners have shown remarkable changes in behavior through gardening programs. An amazing story from the Telegraph in the United Kingdom references the Dartmoor prison which has been using gardening for rehabilitation programming since 2007. Prisoners tend raised beds, chickens, and make compost from kitchen scraps. A portion of their production stays on-premises and is used by the prison kitchen, and another portion is sold to the community.
Healthy eating habits are vital to a sound mind as well as body. Prison nutrition has been receiving attention lately for this reason. Additionally, caring for living things like plants, chickens, or fish in the case of aquaponics, has been shown to increase compassion in prisoners. One famous example of this interaction is with the Puppies Behind Bars program. Puppies Behind Bars teaches inmates to train young puppies while the prisoners themselves receive the therapeutic benefit of playing with the cute dogs!
Reducing Recidivism by Learning a Useful Trade Skill
Dartmoor prison uses gardening in its “resettlement program” which prepares prisoners with two years left on their sentence to reenter the free world. They’ve found that it helps the prisoners learn patience, how to care for living things, and other beneficial skills.
Aquaponics can provide these benefits and teach a valuable job-skill too. With urban farming and aquaponics on the rise, prisoners growing with aquaponics will be ready to rejoin society with meaningful career opportunities. This will reduce recidivism, or returning to old habits of crime, by offering a new life path they didn’t have when they first entered prison.
FastCo magazine and Business Insider both site aquaponics as one of the top industries in 2030, and the urban farming industry is just now starting to really take form. Prisoners trained in aquaponics techniques may make a truly meaningful impact on society upon their release by bringing their skills to the job market. With a meaningful job, prisoners are much less likely to fall back on illicit activity.
A New Prison Paradigm
We must ask ourselves, what is the true purpose of prison? Is it to punish and exact revenge? Or is the purpose of prison to rehabilitate, to provide the loving care that the
criminal requires to change their harmful ways. Don’t prisoners deserve our loving care as our fellow humans? If given the chance, don’t they deserve to repay their debt to the community in a meaningful way, while deriving therapeutic benefits for themselves?
I believe bringing aquaponics to our prisons addresses local community food security issues and will also reduce the rate at which prisoners return to prison after being released.
Aquaponics is already being used in a Denver Colorado jail to sustainably grow food. http://www.denverpost.com/news/ci_26759867/denver-jail-sustainably-growing-food-through-aquaponics. As this trend catches on, our prisoner population may not only provide a level of food security within their communities and reduce the burden of prisoners on the taxpaying population.