Away-from-home Grown: Prisoners raise pheasants, veggies

By: 
Seth Jovaag

[Photos by Seth Jovaag] Randy Handeland is one of two inmates who tend the 8,000-square-foot garden at Oregon Correctional Center

The day-old chicks arrived at Oregon Correctional Center May 20, not much bigger than the eggs they hatched from.

About 4,000 Chinese ring-necked pheasants were trucked from a state-run hatchery near Poynette to the minimum-security prison just north of Oregon. Another 1,400 arrived June 13.

Until October, the birds will be fed, watered, watched and cared for by two inmates working full-time for 42 cents an hour. Then they’ll be released as “adults” into public hunting lands in south central Wisconsin in time for pheasant season.

It’s part of a nearly 30-year partnership between the state Department of Natural Resources and the Department of Corrections aimed at reducing state costs of raising the birds while giving inmates experience working with animals, said Bob Nack, director of the State Game Farm in Poynette.

If you’ve driven past OCC on County Highway M north of town, you’ve probably noticed the netted pens encircled by chicken wire on either side of the road. The birds flit between watering jugs and the cornstalks inside, safe from the hawks, skunks, raccoons and other critters that might want to pick them off, said OCC Sergeant Dave Ammerman.

Part of the inmates’ duties are to mend the fences and nets. Still, occasionally a crafty raccoon snatches one, Ammerman said. Young birds often pile up to stay warm, which can lead to suffocation if they aren’t watched, too.

“They aren’t the smartest birds on the face of the earth,” Ammerman said.

OCC is one of two institutions in Wisconsin – the other is in Oneida – that raise the pheasants. Overall, the state will release about 75,000 birds on public hunting grounds this fall, up from 40,000 last year, Nack said.

Gardens thrive
It’s not the only farming operation at OCC or the neighboring Oakhill Correctional Institution.

At both facilities, inmates also tend expansive gardens. Oakhill’s spans 4 acres that last year yielded a remarkable 82,000 pounds of produce, said garden manager Tom Vande Brink, up from most years by 20,000 pounds or more. Most of that is used to feed Oakhill’s roughly 700 inmates – saving roughly $20,000 in food costs annually – but more than 10 percent goes to stock area food pantries, too.

At OCC, the much smaller 80-by-100 foot garden yielded more than a ton of tomatoes, bell peppers, melons, cucumbers, lettuce and other veggies last year, said Jerry Brassard, food services director.

OCC inmates grow the produce from seed in a small greenhouse. Supplies and potting soil costs just a few hundred bucks a year, while the food from the garden saves OCC several times that much money annually, Brassard said.

Randy Handeland is one of two inmates who, for 19 cents an hour, tends the garden several hours daily, six or seven days a week. He’s serving out the final eight months of a 3-year sentence at OCC for, coincidentally, cultivating marijuana in the Minocqua area.

“If you enjoy gardening, it’s nice,” he said of the work.

He samples the lettuce, radishes or berries as he works to see if they’re ready for harvest.

“It’s kind of like a chef, you got to taste the things to see how they are coming along,” he said.

Oakhill also sends 18 inmates over to work at the 540-acre Oregon State Farm, which surrounds OCC and is run by the DOC’s Bureau of Correctional Enterprises. They milk about 160 cows and grow corn, soybeans, alfalfa and wheat, said Lt. Corey Flier. The milk from Oregon and a facility in Waupun goes to correctional facilities statewide.

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