December 2012

Located on 37,000 acres of rolling foothills, the remarkably scenic Montana State Prison in Deer Lodge holds more than just inmates serving time; it’s also home to a sizeable cattle ranch, dairy operation, and food processing center, all run with inmates’ skills and labor.

In November, co-worker Zoe Carlberg and I had the chance to visit the prison’s food and agriculture operations and learn about the ways these programs are helping reduce recidivism and equip inmates with valuable life skills.

The Ranch

A lifelong rancher, Ross Wagner, the Agriculture Director for Montana Correctional Enterprises (MCE), showed us around the property in his pick-up truck. “We grow barley, alfalfa, oats, and grass hay,” he said as he navigated the pick-up along a dusty road. We came over a rise and several feedlots of cows came into view, backed by the snowy Pintler Mountains. “And we raise 1600 beef cattle,” he added casually.

MCE sells the beef cattle from its cow-calf operation out of state to avoid competing with local ranchers. In recent days they had sold 300 head to a feedlot in Iowa and another 300 to Nebraska.

From the passenger seat, Food Factory Director Joe Mihelic explained that the prison used to have even more food-related projects: gardens, a slaughterhouse, and a cannery. “But a lot of the infrastructure was getting too old to use anymore,” he said as we passed by the remains of the cannery that had been torn down the previous year. “That, and it’s hard to support the growing inmate population.” In 1991 the state prison housed approximately 700 offenders; today that number has reached 1,467.

The prison’s agriculture operations are self-funded and rely heavily on inmate labor. Of the prison’s total population, 192 inmates are classified as “low custody” and are therefore eligible to live in a dormitory outside the fence and work on the prison’s ranch and dairy. Inmates apply for these jobs, are interviewed by site supervisors, and if hired they must stay in a position four months before they’re allowed to switch. The work program has a strong focus on training inmates in technical skills that may be valuable after they finish their sentence.

Dairy

The pick-up stopped outside a picturesque red barn with a silo painted like a Holstein cow. Inside, an advanced milking parlor was operating at full tilt while computers in an adjacent office monitored the flow rates and health of each cow being milked.

The prison’s 310 dairy cows are milked three times at day: at 1 a.m., 9 a.m., and 5 p.m., with each cow producing an average of 100 lbs of milk per cow per day. “It’s a lot safer now, both for the workers and the cows,” Dale Salomon, the Dairy Foreman explained of the facility, built in 2005. “The computerized chip on each cow’s leg monitors her temperature, number of steps, and other health factors that help us detect any problems early on.”

An inmate positioned behind the row of cows shouted a command, a buzzer sounded, and we watched as the metal retaining collars lifted above the enormous cows’ heads and they moseyed out along the corridor, their deflated udders swaying.

The next round of animals slowly entered the milking chambers and made the difficult ninety degree turn to stand in position. The inmates behind the cows sanitized their teats with iodine and prepared to hook up the milking devices while Dale spoke fondly of his work. “It’s the best herd I’ve ever worked with,” he said, referring to the animals’ gentle demeanors.

We left the milking facility and proceeded to an adjacent field scattered with small hoop shelters where calves ate and slept. Dale proudly showed off the triplets that had been born just five days earlier. “This here’s PeeWee,” he said of the tiniest one suckling his finger. “Can you believe their mama gave birth to 210 pounds worth of calves?!” I couldn’t. “The vet knew she was holding three so she had special treatment during the pregnancy.”

We also visited the prison’s dairy processing center that pasteurizes milk and processes and packages yogurt, cream, and ice cream to be served in the eight state facilities the prison feeds. A maze of pipes filled the room, metal ducts through which milk flows to be heated, cooled, and stored. Despite the impressive scale of their in-house operation, the prison processes and serves only 30% of the milk their cows produce; the remaining 70% is sold raw to Darigold.

As we walked around outside the facility, we passed large piles of composting manure used by the prison as fertilizer on its fields. “We’re composting our dead cows now, too,” Ross told us. “I learned at a recent convention that, when covered with enough manure, a carcass will completely decompose in fifteen days. I didn’t believe it until I tried it myself.”

Food Factory

Our final stop was the Food Factory, a large building full of industrial-sized ovens, vats, freezers, and many workers. In addition to the Montana State Prison, the Food Factory provides food for seven other state operations: Montana State Hospital in Warm Springs, the WATCh Program in Warm Springs, Anaconda Deer Lodge County Jail, Elkhorn Treatment Facility, Riverside Youth Correctional Facility, Lewis and Clark County Corrections, Helena Pre-release program and Treasure State Correctional Training Center. That’s a lot of mouths to feed, and the Food Factory produces around 12,000 meals per production day to feed them.

The Food Factory prepares everything almost entirely from scratch, including baked goods produced in its own bakery. The facility sources some of its raw products from within Montana though the majority arrive from elsewhere via wholesale distributors. At one point we walked by an enormous vat of cooked spaghetti that was being bagged. “We get our noodles from Pasta Montana up in Great Falls,” Joe told us as he showed us the final product, spaghetti noodles swimming in a bag of water like state fair goldfish.

Of the facilities the Food Factory serves, some have lunch line-style cafeterias while others use ready-made trays. As a result, the processing center packages both in bulk and in individual trays. One walk-in cooler was stacked with dozens of plastic pallets containing reusable trays covered in plastic wrap. “Each consumer gets a cold tray and a hot tray,” Joe explained, pointing to two complementary breakfast trays.

Leading by Example

The food and agriculture operations at the Montana State Prison are not only extensive, they’re also models for similar reform programs in prisons across the nation. “We’ve been recognized by the National Institute of Corrections for having cutting edge programs in agriculture in our prison,” Joe told us. “The work experience and values these inmates gain while they’re here will help them lead productive lives once they’re released.” Indeed, the combination of food and reform seems to be a recipe for success.