Courts & Corrections

Prisoners package potatoes for Vermont Food Bank

Matthew Mabe, an inmate from Saxtons River, mans the cleaning station at Southeast State Correctional Facility’s potato packaging facility. Photo by Alicia Freese

Eight inmates positioned around a large machine direct a jostling torrent of dusty potatoes along a series of angled conveyor belts.

They are participants in a pilot program at the Southeast State Correctional Facility in Windsor in which prisoners process potatoes for distribution to food shelves around the state. It’s the brainchild of Theresa Snow, executive director of a nonprofit called Salvation Farms that works to make use of the surplus food supply, and the product of several months of planning with the Department of Corrections.

The potatoes — round whites, russets, reds, Yukon gold — come from a potato farm in Williamstown by way of a nonprofit food distributor called Tuberville. Inmate labor allows Salvation Farm to convert truckloads of produce into more manageable portions for food shelf distribution. Salvation Farms pays between $15 and $30 per inmate per day of labor to the DOC. Inmates receive a day off their sentence for each day they work.

It’s the first time the Department of Corrections has participated in the project. At a press conference at the Windsor facility, Gov. Peter Shumlin credited “the innovation of the private sector folks” and pointed to two benefits of the program: It allows Vermont taxpayers to recoup a small part of the money they spend on corrections by putting inmates to productive use, and, for the inmates themselves, it “gives these folks a sense of purpose.”

Between two million and three million pounds of produce go to waste each year in Vermont, by Snow’s estimate. The potatoes are perfectly edible but cosmetic blemishes prevent them from making the cut for retail.

The potato-processing contraption, an amalgam of lustrous red metal parts and rickety-sounding wooden ones, sits in a defunct sawmill that the inmates converted for this purpose. The machine lurches and rumbles and eventually expels the potatoes into a white paper bag, held open by an inmate waiting at the other end. The air is dust-laden and each inmate wears a white mask that covers his mouth.

An inmate at Southeast State Correctional Facility shows Gov. Peter Shumlin how to properly weigh a bag of potatoes. Photo by Alicia Freese

The eight inmates, working seven hours a day for four days, have cleaned, sorted and bagged 15,000 pounds of potatoes so far, and they plan to do 15,000 more. Black River Produce then trucks them for a reduced fee to the Vermont Foodbank, which pays a nominal processing fee to Salvation Farms.

The inmates express varying levels of enthusiasm for the program. Asked why he had gotten involved, Jesse West, a 28-year-old from Fair Haven, answered, “Well, I’m here because I’m in jail.”

Matthew Mabe, a 30-year-old from Saxtons River who works the cleaning stations (“It’s the dirtiest job, but I like it.”) said he prefers it to other work “because you know you are helping somebody out there.” It’s more rewarding, Mabe went on to explain, to do something that benefits the community than it is to complete tasks that only have an insular impact — like chopping firewood to heat the prison.

Southeast State, a minimum security facility situated on a large swath of farmland, is well-suited for the operation. Andy Pallito, commissioner of the Department of Corrections said the program could be a good source of employment for the portion of the prison population that remains in prison due to lack of adequate housing options, but he pointed to the challenges of expanding the model to higher security level facilities.

“As we expand, it’s going to be a little more staff intensive,” Pallito said, mentioning the enhanced risk of flight and increased “complications” around sending truckloads of produce in and out of medium security prisons.

Amy Shollenberger, a board member of Salvation Farms, said even the minimum security standards at Southeast State posed problems. “A prison doesn’t let you roll in with a bunch of loose soft things,” she said, referring to the challenge of transporting the potatoes in and out of the facility. Shollenberger said Susan Bartlett, special assistant to Shumlin, played a key role in helping the program overcome these hurdles. “She was the magic that figured thing out.”

Part of the intent behind the partnership is to provide prisoners with job training and certificates. This particular project doesn’t require much skill so there is no certificate component for the inmates, but Pallito said, higher level training may come into play if the program can expand to other areas of production.

Asked whether or not he thinks the program will continue to expand, Jesse West replied, “I guess it depends if we can get more potatoes.”

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Alicia Freese

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