Correctional farm saves money, redirects lives

The 640-acre Point Mackenzie Correctional Farm outside of Wasilla provides food for the state’s prisons and local food banks. Inmates raise pigs, cattle, and chickens, and farm thousands of pounds of potatoes, tomatoes, and other produce each year. But the farm does more than provide food and savings for the state. It helps people turn their lives around.

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John McElwain walks through his pig barn past lounging sows with swollen teats and suckling piglets. Other little ones nap in a small wooden shed.

“These are about 2 weeks old,” he says, pointing to squirming brown and pink piglets. “She had 12. They’re just kinda doing their thing in there. We built a little house for them to keep them warm, and they like that.”

John McElwain shows off one of his new piglets at the Pt. Mackenzie Correctional Farm. (Norris/Alaska Public Media)
John McElwain shows off one of his new piglets at the Pt. Mackenzie Correctional Farm. (Norris/Alaska Public Media)

McElwain never envisioned himself as a pig farmer. He was working as an industrial painter, but he started using drugs and was arrested three and half years ago.

“I hate to say it, but coming to prison was probably one of the better things to happen to me. If I’m really honest about it, I needed to be taken away from myself.”

When he was living in the pre-trial facility he went through drug abuse treatment and took anger management classes. A year later he was finally sentenced to 10 years in prison. He was sent to Goose Creek Correctional Center. Because he was minimum security, not a sex offender or an arsonist, and pretty low-risk, he was given the option to live and work at the Correctional Farm instead of the prison. He’s one of 35 inmates there.

McElwain says working on the farm is keeping him focused and on track. “Sitting over there, across the road [at Goose Creek], twiddling your thumbs, you’re more apt to get into all the negatives that are in prison.”

It feels different being on the farm than in pre-trial, McElwain says, because he and the other men are judged by their work rather than just as inmates. They’re trusted to follow the rules as if they are behind concrete walls instead of on a farm that doesn’t even have fences. Unlike Goose Creek, which has over 200 security officers, Point Mackenzie only has four.

“So they learn responsibility out here and a work ethic,” says Lt. John Gindling, who helps oversee both institutions. “Because they are just like you and me. They go to work every day. They get up. They go to meetings. They tell us what issues are going on.”

Most of what’s going on is massive food production. The 3.5 million pounds of vegetables, eggs, beef, and pork are sent to correctional institutions across the state, saving the department more than $540,000 in food costs. Last year, the farm donated 174,000 pounds of produce to the Food Bank of Alaska. Most of the meat stays at nearby prisons after it’s butchered by Joe Harvey in a meat locker a few buildings away from the pig barn.

Joe Harvey cuts meat at the Point Mackenzie Correctional Farm. (Norris/Alaska Public Media)
Joe Harvey cuts meat at the Point Mackenzie Correctional Farm. (Norris/Alaska Public Media)

“Right here, we’re taking the baby back ribs off. This is the loin roast,” Harvey explains as he delicately slices into the meat. “So what we do it follow the bone because this is all your baby backs right here. We’ll have to trim this off right here because this is the spine.”

Just like McElwain, Harvey never pictured himself on a farm or working as a butcher. He says when he was first arrested 24 years ago, he didn’t care much about improving his future. He was 18 and had been involved in a burglary that led to a death. It wasn’t until he spoke with the parents of murdered children that he started to fully understand how his actions impact others. He decided to focus on being a better person.

Harvey arrived at Point Mackenzie in 2013. He says his work in the meat locker and in the fields harvesting vegetables shows him that his contributions matter.

“We feed the other prisoners, which they get real food, not processed, not cans. And because we do donations and everything, it actually helps the community, and they have access to the fresh vegetables we produce.”

Having the freedom of the farm helps him develop healthier interactions with other inmates, too. “If you do have conflict with somebody, it’s a little easier to take that step away and get that breather and say ‘Hey, I was wrong.’ Or ‘We need to deal with this in a better way,’” Harvey says.

But Harvey doesn’t think programs like the correctional farm are the cure-all for reforming prisoners. And there’s only anecdotal evidence to show that it reduces recidivism. The Department of Corrections doesn’t track rates for specific facilities. Harvey says the farm helped him focus, but it won’t work for everyone.

“People have to be willing to put in the effort for the programs to be effective. Some people are there, some people aren’t. Some people get there by going through the program.”

Farm staff gives inmates more than a few chances to get on board, but one or two inmates are sent back to Goose Creek every year. After three years at the farm, Harvey doesn’t plan to be one of them. He’s up for parole in the fall, and hopes he’ll be released so he can start his own small business.