Wisconsin Prison Produces Both Milk and Life Skills

Jan 31, 2020  | 6 min  | Ep4524

The number of dairy farms across the United States is in decline even as the number of cows in the herd remains about the same. Last year, Vermont lost 677 dairies and Wisconsin saw 551 of its dairy farms disappear.

But for one operation, the ultimate goal is trying to reduce crime. For decades, prison officials have tried varying methods to reduce the number of returning inmates and have found a winning combination. 

Peter Tubbs has more in our Cover Story.

Brad, Bureau of Prisons worker: “I've never had to teach people before and I've been, been able to experience that here so, so that'll help me out there. I was never willing to do it before.”

It’s easy to mistake this farm on the edge of Waupun, Wisconsin, for one of the thousands of dairy farms in the state. The reality is that the workers here are inmates in the Wisconsin prison system, and their tasks are two-fold: produce milk for other government facilities and prepare for their lives once they are paroled.  It’s as much a school as it is a farm.

Wes Ray, Director, Bureau of Correctional Enterprises:  “We provide inmate workers with opportunities they can use to better prepare themselves to succeed in the institutions and when they return to their families and communities. Those are opportunities to work, to learn and to earn.”

Maintaining a herd of 1,100 dairy cows requires 300 man-hours each day. Spread across two shifts and 33 inmates, the 400 milking cows are milked three times per day, and each animal yields 80 pounds daily, a rate above the industry standard of 66 pounds.

For the Wisconsin Bureau of Prisons, the milk is the primary revenue stream...the routine, a byproduct.

In accordance with Wisconsin Bureau of Prisons policy, current and former inmates are identified by only their first names.

Brad, Bureau of Prisons worker: “There's always, there's always that stuff, but to just go with each day and work through it and get it done and it's all about making the whole thing function, you know, I'm just a small portion of what really goes on here. So a lot of people out here doing a lot of different things and working together to get it all done, manage it appropriately.”

Prison officials believe the agricultural work - planting, harvest, and hands on with animals – prepares inmates for life after their eventual release.  

Former inmates confirm the experience being good for them on the outside. Fernando currently manages a retail store.

Fernando, Former Bureau of Prisons worker: “I liked it because it put me, Uh, it was like the discipline, you know, instead of just sitting around and not doing nothing, I put myself to, you know, uh, getting myself used to that way when I went back to society, you know, I was not going to be wasting time and you know, I'm doing something and doing something about my life with my life.”

Mark is now working in construction.

Mark, Mark: Former Bureau of Prisons worker:  “So another thing was good was even working with the weather because no matter what, if it's raining or shine and everyone has to be here at the farm and it's not a seven, like a seven to three job, it's a seven day a week job. 365. So to be here and to show up on time and, and, and stick it out and there's a lot of hours. I guess I learned people more than anything and uh, different people because when you're out here you have to work with a lot of different people, maybe people that you would never normally in your life be around and you can't exactly just walk away from them. So you better figure out a way to work with them and when you can work with them and everybody gets the job done together, it is pretty good.”

While many of the inmate workers walked in with job skills, Ray often sees the soft skills of seeing a job to completion and working with others, as the most valuable lessons learned on the farm.

Wes Ray, Director, Bureau of Correctional Enterprises:  “We like to say they learn general work skills, how to get to work every day to get through the day in spite of challenges with people and equipment and to get work done, to be persistent and not just spend time.”

Milk processing takes place a few miles away at another Bureau of Prisons facility in Waupun. The facility packages milk in half pint boxes and five gallon bags, and also produces over 28,000 gallons of ice cream and sherbet each year. The dairy products are sold to government facilities in Wisconsin and Minnesota, and the revenues support the larger mission to train inmates for future jobs.

Charles: “On the outside. I'm a cook but it was nice to see the other part of this and I am actually from the third dairy state. So this is something that I can try to, you know, go into out there and you know, like a transferable job skills. So just learning something different and coming out of this with a new job skill was pretty good for me.”

While the Bureau can only bid for work from other government agencies or non-profits, it is expected to be financially self-sustaining. Profits are spent on improving the operations of the various facilities.

Wes Ray, Director, Bureau of Correctional Enterprises: “We submit a number of bids and we are not the winning organizations, so we have to learn from those losing bids, modify our product, modify our prices, modify our delivery schedule and get back in the game. And the next time we get a bid.”

In addition to fulfilling the dairy needs of Wisconsin state government, inmates who work for Correctional Enterprises return to prison at a lower rate than those who do not perform work outside the prison walls. While only a few percentage points over the average, more than two-thirds of Correctional Enterprises employees never return after being paroled.

Wes Ray, Director, Bureau of Correctional Enterprises: “So we have a .690 batting average and we're excited to talk about that.”

Some former workers on the dairy farm find work within agriculture, but most transition to other jobs in the Wisconsin economy. For those who have been through the program, the lessons learned on 1,500 acres in Central Wisconsin are about life as much as agriculture.

Fernando: “I mean, a lot of the guys never had even worked in a farm and by them coming here, they learning that it's okay to get your hands dirty and do something for, for the right cause.”

For Market to Market, I’m Peter Tubbs. Producer Contact: peter.tubbs@iowpbs.org

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