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Alaska's only prison work farm will no longer house inmates

Zaz Hollander
Butterhead lettuce is grown hydroponically at the Point Mackenzie Correctional Farm. The Point Mackenzie Correctional Farm, which began operating in 1991, currently employs 84 inmates at the 640-acre site. Beginning this summer, the facility will not house the inmates. TheyÕll stay at nearby Goose Creek Correctional Center. Otherwise operations will remain the same. Photos on Thursday, March 13, 2014.
Marc Lester
Chickens are one of the animals raised at the Point Mackenzie Correctional Farm. The Point Mackenzie Correctional Farm, which began operating in 1991, currently employs 84 inmates at the 640-acre site. Beginning this summer, the facility will not house the inmates. TheyÕll stay at nearby Goose Creek Correctional Center. Otherwise operations will remain the same. Photos on Thursday, March 13, 2014.
Marc Lester
Many inmates stay in two-person rooms in Atco trailers at the Point Mackenzie Correctional Farm. The Point Mackenzie Correctional Farm, which began operating in 1991, currently employs 84 inmates at the 640-acre site. Beginning this summer, the facility will not house the inmates. TheyÕll stay at nearby Goose Creek Correctional Center. Otherwise operations will remain the same. Photos on Thursday, March 13, 2014.
Marc Lester
Assistant superintendent Bernie Kohut scratches one of the 56 pigs kept at the correctional farm. The Point Mackenzie Correctional Farm, which began operating in 1991, currently employs 84 inmates at the 640-acre site. Beginning this summer, the facility will not house the inmates. TheyÕll stay at nearby Goose Creek Correctional Center. Otherwise operations will remain the same. Photos on Thursday, March 13, 2014.
Marc Lester
Hay stacks are covered at the Point Mackenzie Correctional Farm, which has a view of Mt. Susitna. The Point Mackenzie Correctional Farm, which began operating in 1991, currently employs 84 inmates at the 640-acre site. Beginning this summer, the facility will not house the inmates. TheyÕll stay at nearby Goose Creek Correctional Center. Otherwise operations will remain the same. Photos on Thursday, March 13, 2014.
Marc Lester
Earl Houser is the assistant superintendent that oversees operations at the Point Mackenzie facility. He stands in a potato storage area at the farm. The Point Mackenzie Correctional Farm, which began operating in 1991, currently employs 84 inmates at the 640-acre site. Beginning this summer, the facility will not house the inmates. TheyÕll stay at nearby Goose Creek Correctional Center. Otherwise operations will remain the same. Photos on Thursday, March 13, 2014.
Marc Lester
Inmates prepare maple sausage at the Point Mackenzie Correctional Farm. The Point Mackenzie Correctional Farm, which began operating in 1991, currently employs 84 inmates at the 640-acre site. Beginning this summer, the facility will not house the inmates. TheyÕll stay at nearby Goose Creek Correctional Center. Otherwise operations will remain the same. Photos on Thursday, March 13, 2014.
Marc Lester
Correctional officer Tom Williams takes a count a 3 p.m. count of inmates at the Point Mackenzie Correctional Farm. The Point Mackenzie Correctional Farm, which began operating in 1991, currently employs 84 inmates at the 640-acre site. Beginning this summer, the facility will not house the inmates. TheyÕll stay at nearby Goose Creek Correctional Center. Otherwise operations will remain the same. Photos on Thursday, March 13, 2014.
Marc Lester
The Point Mackenzie Correctional Farm keeps Angus cattle. The Point Mackenzie Correctional Farm, which began operating in 1991, currently employs 84 inmates at the 640-acre site. Beginning this summer, the facility will not house the inmates. TheyÕll stay at nearby Goose Creek Correctional Center. Otherwise operations will remain the same. Photos on Thursday, March 13, 2014.
Marc Lester
An inmates works on a tractor in a Point Mackenzie Correctional Farm shop. The Point Mackenzie Correctional Farm, which began operating in 1991, currently employs 84 inmates at the 640-acre site. Beginning this summer, the facility will not house the inmates. TheyÕll stay at nearby Goose Creek Correctional Center. Otherwise operations will remain the same. Photos on Thursday, March 13, 2014.
Marc Lester

WASILLA -- The hogs, cows, and chickens will still get fed.

The potatoes will get planted, the broccoli picked, the hothouse tomatoes nurtured.

But come July, the only prison work farm in Alaska will no longer house any inmates.

The state is downsizing the 33-year-old Point MacKenzie Correctional Farm, combining staffing with Goose Creek Correctional Center, the state's newest and largest prison, located just a few miles away.

Instead of living at the farm, a skeleton crew of inmate workers will be bused back and forth from Goose Creek and Palmer Correctional Center, a minimum-security facility more than an hour's drive away. There will be one correctional officer and one sergeant working at the farm at any given time.

The change will save the state $2.5 million a year, according to the Alaska Department of Corrections.

The downsizing marks the end of an era.

Until now, the farm gave minimum-security inmates, many with just days or weeks left to serve, a way to transition to the rhythms and responsibilities of life outside prison without the stress of life in a medium-security facility like Goose Creek.

While the farm isn't closing, the end of live-in inmates marks a big change, said Earl Houser, the farm's assistant superintendent.

"It is a lot more relaxed in a farm setting because there is no barbed wire and fences that surround the farm. It's more of an honor system," Houser said. "They get up early in the morning and do their work, their chores, and come back at the end of the day, go to sleep and wake up again to do it all over. It's good hard work. It actually gives them something to look forward to."

As of last week, there were 88 inmates living and working at the farm; that number was just over 100 in February.

Starting in July, the farm will only need 12 to 15 inmates on a regular basis to irrigate, maintain the animals and keep equipment and vehicles running, state Department of Corrections spokeswoman Kaci Schroeder said in an email. Another 50 to 60 prisoners will be needed just six times a year for weeding and planting.

'LIFE SKILLS TAUGHT HERE'

A number of inmates are unhappy with the change, several people interviewed for this story said.

Inmates at the farm are carefully selected and have to be considered minimum-security or low risk prisoners, state corrections officials say.

Once at the farm, they get to ditch the prison scrubs and wear their own clothes. They earn decent money at the farm. The food is better.

They get a room instead of a cell, peace and quiet instead of the stark, regimented and often confrontational environment of Goose Creek, where pretrial inmates new to the system create a sometimes volatile mix with seasoned prison veterans convicted of everything from drug crimes to sexual assault and murder.

Starting in July, inmates getting bussed back and forth to work at the farm will wear prison work uniforms instead of their own clothes, be subject to twice-daily strip searches and go home to their cells within Goose Creek's perimeter of two, 12-foot fences topped with razor wire.

Farm inmate Kenneth Goldsbury wrote Gov. Sean Parnell a letter last month opposing the changes.

"Being at Point MacKenzie Correctional Farm has relieved most stress that exists in medium and maximum facilities," Goldsbury wrote. "One is able to begin to gather his thoughts in a less hostile environment and better prepare for a successful reentry into society as a productive member."

Convicted in 2009 of attempted murder after shooting a neighbor at a Wasilla hotel room in an argument over drywall mud, Goldsbury turns 59 in April and will be nearly 60 when released. He told the governor that the farm is "regarded highly by many inmates who want to enter back into society as productive members."

"There are many life skills taught here," Goldsbury wrote.

SUPPORT NETWORK

State officials counter that Goose Creek offers plenty of vocational and other training programs to give inmates the skills they need to transition out.

"What's probably a benefit to the prisoner is that there's a lot of educational opportunities over there at Goose Creek," said Houser, the farm's assistant superintendent. "During the down time, they'll be able to partake in the education."

Along with substance abuse programs and faith-based groups, Goose Creek offers computer lab, General Education Diploma classes and testing. It also offers nine vocational services including CPR, mining, carpentry, electrical, heating ventilation and air conditioning trades, and welding. The prison was designed to mimic community life: inmates in general housing get to leave their cells to go to the post office, the barber, the dining hall.

State officials say they except a fairly smooth transition from a residential farm to day-shift only.

Many of the inmates now living at the farm will furlough out, go to halfway houses, or qualify for work release programs by July, Schroeder said.

Asked if taking life at the farm out of the mix removes an incentive for good behavior, she said no.

"We have other incentives that we can use that seem to be just as effective - if people want to get out and do well they will," Schroeder said. "If you're a medium guy and you're looking at going down to minimum and we say, hey, during the day you can go out to the farm, that's a huge incentive."

FUTURE OF THE FARM

State officials say the end of residency at the farm won't change production.

The farm last year produced more than 1.4 million pounds of meat, eggs, produce and forage such as hay.

Farm manager Adam Boyd ticked off the list of veggies grown on about 150 acres: cucumbers, tomatoes, broccoli, cauliflower, lettuce, cabbage, potatoes, carrots, brussel sprouts. There are 49 Black Angus cows, 108 hogs and 600 chickens producing about 260 eggs a day, according to Houser.

About half the food produced on the farm goes to feed the 1,500 prisoners now incarcerated at Goose Creek. Some goes to Wildwood Correctional Complex in Kenai; Spring Creek Correctional Center in Seward; Fairbanks Correctional Center; Palmer Correctional Center; and Hiland Mountain Correctional Center in Eagle River. Some gets donated to charities.

But Boyd, a Palmer-area potato grower contracted by the state, said last week he wasn't sure exactly how the inmate changes were going to play out in terms of farm operations. He hasn't been able to meet with corrections officials yet.

"I kind of play different scenarios in my head," he said by phone from Juneau Wednesday. "It's a hard question for me to answer. They haven't really told me what I have to work with yet."

The farm was originally designed to give lots of people lots of work to do, Boyd said, and in the last eight years, production has tripled. The operation remains labor-intensive, though he said he was able to add irrigation equipment last summer that replaces a dozen workers with just the one needed to turn it on and off.

If the farm has fewer inmate workers, Boyd said his 10-hour days may turn into 14- or 16-hour days. He said he'll manage.

Some farm inmates don't like the state's decision to end inmate housing, Boyd said. He's fielded complaints.

The farm manager said he knows first-hand the value inmates get from not just working but living at the farm. Boyd has hired a number of former inmates at his own farm.

"Working day in, day out, you get to know people, get to know what they're made of," he said. "Sixteen hour days, long hours and lack of sleep and hard work, that tends to war down all those defenses. You get to know who they really are."

Reach Zaz Hollander at zhollander@adn.com or 257-4317.

 


By ZAZ HOLLANDER
zhollander@adn.com