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Down on the farm

Get a glimpse of a different kind of aggie in SLO County

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Off Highway 1, just past the Men’s Colony and inside the command center at San Luis Obispo County Sheriff’s Honor Farm, night officers Kurt Larsen and Matt Govette greet the day crew.

“The place wasn’t burnt down,” Larsen says as he steps out. It’s 6:45 a.m. and the sun has begun to ruffle the dawning sky. It’s chilly, but that’s standard for the windswept valley split down the middle by Highway 1. The door to the command center remains open, as inmates clad in blue denim huddle and bounce circumspect glances off each other. Officers Heath Owens and Brian Power fill Styrofoam cups with Folgers coffee and go over the day’s duty list, prepping for the day ahead. Three more officers enter, followed by Deputy Steve Hendrickson. According to Power, Hendrickson has been integral in the effort to expand the women’s prison.

The men’s dormitories are empty save a handful of inmates who watch the KSBY news team smile and laugh. Next to the flat screens a white sign with red letters commands “KEEP UP AFTER YOURSELF MANDATORY.” Today it appears the inmates have followed orders, as bunk beds, round tables, bookshelves, and DVDs are tidy. A black cat jumps onto a table, and an inmate pets it.

“It’s great for rodent control,” Power observes, watching the cat meander across the dorm linoleum. Outside thick glass windows shielding the command center, two inmates stand at porcelain sinks. They stare into rectangular mirrors and finish shaving.

California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) in its codes and regulations mandates inmates be clean shaven every day. They’re issued two razors a week, Power says, and hair clippers are always available. During roll call, officers flash light on the men’s faces. If there’s a shadow, officers use the backside of their hands to swipe inmate’s cheeks. Officers send the unkempt to re-shave while the rest stand outside and wait.

“The other guys get angry at them,” Power reveals. Unlike their counterparts, who live half a mile down Kansas Avenue in county jail, inmates at the Honor Farm lead a different life. Some work in the farm’s kitchen or at Animal Services. Others pull weeds, pick up shell casings at the shooting range, wash county vehicles, or clean the dorms. One inmate pumps gas; two refurbish bikes. Some wash and fold laundry, a preferred job because it eats away the day. There’s even a greenhouse, plots filled with broccoli, an orchard with apple and orange saplings, and an ornamental garden. Between the orchard and rows of grape vines sits a compost pile.

Power heads the agricultural crew. It’s something he’s passionate about because the work benefits the men and the farm. Since coming on, he’s expanded the plots twofold. Working with Nipomo agri-business Speedling Inc., Power trades refurbished bikes for young, transplantable greens. In return, Speedling employees ride bikes instead of walking the football field-length nurseries, which saves time hauling during year-round harvest. After bikes are donated or seized, inmates restore the bikes, then re-donate them to underprivileged children throughout SLO County. In fact, around holidays like Christmas, inmates go into the community and are rewarded for their labor.

“It’s a good feeling when you see the children’s faces,” says one inmate on the bike crew.

Discretion plays into an officer’s decision when assigning jobs to inmates—or “farmers,” as called by their superiors. No job is guaranteed, Power says, but they do the best they can to make each farmer an efficient contributor.

In addition to their day jobs, farmers can attend skill-building workshops. “Workplace Readiness” is a Monday and Wednesday night class taught by Cuesta College professor Ira Freeman. Farmers learn to write résumés, interview, and search for jobs. “All to prevent recidivism,” correctional lieutenant Michelle Cole says. The program is funded by Cuesta;
to maintain revenue flow, 18 farmers must be enrolled in the class.

Another program provides farmers an opportunity to earn a nationally recognized food certificate, which can help secure a job in the food service industry. “See this?” says food safety manager Terry Heflin, showing what looks like a business card. “It doesn’t say anything about jail. It’s tough to land a job when you have a criminal record.”

The kitchen crew wakes at 3:45 a.m. Farmers cook breakfast and serve three squares a day to the entire jail system, which includes inmates and administrators at the county jail, Juvenile Services Center, and the farm. It pays to be on the kitchen crew, Power says, because guys create different spreads and have access to more food. And often times those on the kitchen crew will let other farmers eat their chow.

After all farmers are accounted for, they head to work. The farm comes alive. Approximately 40 inmates live on the farm, but the numbers fluctuate because some either are sent back to the county jail or are released. Being sent back—“rolled up,” as officers call it—is triggered by such reasons as fighting or non-compliance.

Power is in charge of picking inmates from the county jail for the farm. He chooses inmates serving less than a year who have been booked on drug charges, multiple DUIs, or less violent crimes. Power will sometimes choose a guy who’s doing more than a year’s time, but that’s a rare occurrence. He’s been a correctional officer for a decade, and worked at the farm since January 2011. He says he needed a break from the jail because, “seriously, anything can happen” there. On the farm, life is less stressful.

When inmates become farmers, they ditch dingy orange for honor blue. They’re issued tops and bottoms, socks and underwear, a white T-shirt, a towel, and, depending on their job, a jacket and hat, and a mattress cover—or as officers call it, a “fart sack.”

The farm is responsible for washing every inmate’s clothes. But laundry service at the county jail happens only once a week, because inmates don’t work every day, as farmers do. On the farm, dirty laundry piles up in bags and carts, is washed and dried using industrial washers and driers, and is finally folded on a long, wide table that looks like a kitchen island. The crew works all day, typically finishing just as dinner is served at 4 p.m. Everybody eats the same thing. But for diabetics or those allergic to, say, lactose, nuts, shellfish, or gluten, alternative options are available, Heflin says. There’s even a “disciplinary diet,” which consists of a meatloaf lunch and two slices of bread—no breakfast or dinner.

Heflin, also a senior cook, monitors the kitchen crew, as dinner, like lunch and breakfast, is served on crude plastic trays. Food is plated by an assembly line of workers. All meals—disciplinary included—meet nutritional standards set by the Food and Nutrition Board of the Institute of Medicine, National Academy of Science.

Kitchen workers cook most food from scratch: breads, meatloaf, beans, dessert, to name a few, which saves the sheriff’s department money. A “ballpark” figure, farmers make 1,700 meals a day, at about $1 per meal, Heflin says. Food necessities not harvested on the farm are bought from suppliers in southern California. Although it’s a small operation, Power says he hopes the orchard and plots will provide fruits and vegetables year-round.

Dinner is served near the basketball courts. Tonight’s meal: two corn dogs, beans, greens, a slice of bread, and white cake with cinnamon frosting. Farmers take turns grabbing trays and a pink half-pint milk box. Some move into the dorms, where they watch a movie. Others remain outside and eat at picnic tables.

And a long day at the farm draws to a close.

Intern Anthony Pannone can be reached via Managing Editor Ashley Schwellenbach at aschwellenbach@newtimesslo.com.

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