POINT MACKENZIE — The Point Mackenzie Correctional Farm is unlike any other Alaska prison.
Tucked deep in the farmlands of the Susitna Valley, the farm announces itself with a split-rail fence crowded with lupines and a small sign: “Property of the Alaska Department of Corrections.”
The 640-acre farm sits just 8 miles from Goose Creek Correctional Center, a high-tech fortress of steel and concrete that’s Alaska’s largest prison, but a world away.
At the Point Mackenzie Correctional Farm, there’s no razor wire or guard towers. Instead of slamming cell doors, concrete and steel, there’s a sedge of sandhill cranes perched in a fallow field. A bull bellowing in an enclosure. Wildflowers and rain. Wind and sun. Mount Susitna in the distance. Pigs wallowing in mud and potatoes planted in the field.
“This place is different,” said Harry Moore, the superintendent.
On a recent June afternoon, the 127 minimum-security inmates selected to spend the last years or months of their sentences at the farm were laboring to keep the farm going. They mowed lawns, fed livestock, ran tractors, collected eggs from chickens, harvested rhubarb.
Life at the farm feels purposeful, said Curtis Chevalier, at work tending tomatoes in a humid greenhouse.
Chevalier is in prison for the first time. In his first days at Goose Creek, he found the jailhouse culture “terrifying,” he said. He was relieved when his institutional probation officer said he qualified to serve his sentence at the farm instead. Now he spends his days at work, devising ways to increase the yield of the greenhouse. The tomatoes, like all the produce harvested at the farm, go to other Alaska correctional facilities, as well as community food banks. His release date is in 2025.
“I get to do this and not sit in a concrete building,” he said. “I’ve never been incarcerated before — I don’t want to harden as a person.”
The farm is minimum security, a place someone could walk away from by doing little more than slipping through a split-rail fence — and risking a felony escape charge. Yet almost no one does.
A prison unlike any other
In an era when states are shutting down their prison farms because they are seen as an anachronism, the Point Mackenzie farm remains a point of pride for the Alaska Department of Corrections.
To earn placement at the farm, inmates must be classified as “minimum custody” by institutional probation and parole officers, meaning they are seen as a low security and escape threat.
That doesn’t mean the inmates’ underlying crimes were not serious, said Jason Hamilton, a superintendent at Point Mackenzie Correctional Farm and at Palmer Correctional Center. Though there are no heavy-duty fences, walking away from the farm would earn an instant felony escape charge. Not everyone is eligible: People convicted of sex offenses or crimes involving arson are barred from doing time at the farm.
In an often bleak prison landscape contending with a record number of inmate suicides last year, the farm is a place inmates vie to be assigned to, and where correctional officers ask to work, said Moore, the superintendent.
For years, it has quietly functioned much differently from even other minimum-security prisons. The men manage a farm that produces tons of vegetables and raises cattle, pigs and chickens: 150 cows. 50 pigs. Somewhere between 300 and 400 chickens producing 51,000 eggs. Harvests of 745,000 pounds of hay, nearly 5,000 pounds of tomatoes, 14,000 pounds of lettuce, 12,000 pounds of celery, 22,000 pounds of cabbage. The days are busy, especially during the summer growing season.
Inmates are allowed to wear their own clothes instead of prison-issued jumpsuits. They make decisions and solve the type of problems that arise daily on a farm together — installing a new irrigation system or even helping birth calves. Sometimes an inmate has to stay up all night tending a sick piglet or calf.
Most of them don’t come from farm backgrounds or expect to work in agriculture when they are released, but the work offers something deeper, said Hamilton.
“They are learning to care about something beyond themselves,” he said.
Inmate labor and the future
The Point Mackenzie Farm was overgrown and abandoned when the Alaska Department of Corrections took over in the mid-1990s. By then, prison farms were already fading as a reality of American incarceration.
Prison farms run by inmate laborers have a fraught history that traces back to the end of the Civil War, when slavery was outlawed but states took advantage of imprisoned workers as a free labor force. Prisoners all over the country still labor in prison industries ranging from harvesting cotton to making license plates. Inmate labor is a core part of prison life in Alaska, said Angela Hall, an activist for families of prisoners whose husband is doing a life sentence at Wildwood Correctional Center in Kenai. Inmates cook, perform janitorial tasks and maintain the grounds of prisons. They are paid nominally, ranging from 25 cents to $1.25 per hour, depending on the task.
“The institutions could not function without inmate labor,” Hall said.
Hall sees the Point Mackenzie farm as bucking a system that’s becoming harsher. Inmates at some facilities can no longer receive mail from loved ones but get photocopies. Visits at Wildwood are so tightly controlled that Hall can’t touch her husband to get a photo together, she said.
Chevalier, the greenhouse manager and inmate, said the farm allowed him to retain autonomy and some dignity, especially around his family. He didn’t want them to visit Goose Creek and to see him as a prisoner.
“Walking around in (prison jumpsuit) yellows, that does something to you,” he said. But when he got transferred to the farm, he felt OK about having his 6-year-old daughter visit.
“My daughter saw me as her dad that she remembered,” he said.
The Department of Corrections is proud of the Point Mackenzie farm, and rightly so, Hall said — it’s a true example of rehabilitation-focused incarceration. And while the model might not work for higher-security prisons and inmates, there are elements that could be expanded, she thinks — purposeful work, earned autonomy.
“Even if it’s just the gardening program, they could do more,” she said. “They could be proud to show off the other facilities.”
In recent years, some states have moved away from prison agricultural operations on the grounds that teaching inmates farming skills is less valuable in the modern workforce.
In Ohio, corrections officials called farming an “anachronism” no longer useful for preparing inmates for life after prison and shut down 10 operations that had produced beef and dairy cattle.
Department officials point out that the farm produces vegetables and livestock for the community. All of the tons of produce, cattle, pigs and chickens go to feeding inmates at other Department of Corrections facilities, offsetting some expenses, or are donated to community food banks. Last year the farm donated some pigs that inmates raised to Future Farmers of America in Palmer, Moore said.
The farm is quietly practicing a form of incarceration that some might find radical, said Hall.
“We talk about the Norway model all the time,” she said. “The farm is something like we’d like to see that model in other facilities.”
At a time when the Department of Corrections is contending with a record number of inmate suicides, other institutions seem to be getting more punitive, if anything, said Hall. She wonders why the Department of Corrections couldn’t expand some of the principles that make the farm work to other institutions.
“For most of us, it would be kind of a dream, to be able to (have a loved one) spend time at the farm,” Hall said. “They are there to work. But it still gives them a taste of freedom, and in a sense, because they’re doing meaningful work.”
It’s not perfect. The state shut down the farm’s residential component in 2014 as a cost-saving measure, bringing in inmates from Goose Creek to work. Housing at the farm reopened in 2016.
And there have been escapes that alarmed the surrounding community, like when a 59-year-old inmate walked away from the farm in 2019 and burglarized rural cabins for weeks before being arrested in Willow.
Sean Maloney, a commercial fisherman from Kodiak, worked in the metal shop on a recent afternoon, making new commercial-grade grates for the dining hall. Maloney said substance abuse led to trouble, which led to prison. He aims to learn a trade.
“If you’re looking to do better in life, the farm is where you go,” he said.
Chevalier, the inmate who runs the greenhouse, plans to pursue a career farming when he gets out and returns to Washington state, where he’s from.
“They give us a lot of autonomy here,” he said.
It makes sense to give inmates the ability to make more choices for themselves than they would at a higher-security prison. Soon the men at Point Mackenzie will be living in communities, Moore said.
“Someone may have made a terrible mistake in the past — it could have been 20 years ago — and now they’re finally getting ready to go home,” said Moore. “They will be our neighbors.”