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Farming as Therapy: Maine Prisoners Grow Food - and Self-Awareness
10/22/2013   Reported By: Jennifer Mitchell

With the arrival of autumn, farmers across the state are drying their feed corn, putting piles of pumpkins by the road and fattening up turkeys for the Thanksgiving market. So too is a crew of inmates at the Bolduc Correctional Facility in Warren. At Bolduc, prisoners serving the last few years of their sentences can learn what it takes to grow their own food, and run a farm. As Jennifer Mitchell reports, the prison farm was once one of the biggest agricultural producers in the state. Today, it's a more modest operation focused on vocational education and therapy.

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See Editor's Note below.

At 800 acres, Bolduc Farm feels far removed. Dirt tracks wind through the woods past a patchwork of pastures. And if you see a fence, it's intended to keep cows in or deer out, not to secure the 20-something inmates who might be working in the fields during harvest time.

"I enjoy being outside most of the day. This truck is really my office," says farm manager Randy Thomas.

When he got his degree in agricultural sciences a couple of decades ago, Thomas didn't have managing a prison farm included on his bucket list. This is by far the biggest farm that Thomas has ever managed. But his job isn't just about crop rotation or picking pumpkins; he also has to think about farming as therapy for inmates who are serving time for everything from drunken driving to manslaughter.

"They're looking for structure in their lives and they never had it growing up," Thomas says. "They might have had a bad family life and just never had structure. And seeing a result from your labors, seeing something you plant, you tend to, it grows and you're able to harvest it, I think it makes you feel good that you've actually accomplished something."

Bolduc farm started in the early 1930s, and within a few years had developed into one of the largest beef and dairy operations in the state. But, just like its neighboring family farms, Bolduc farm fell into decline in the latter half of the century.

A devastating fire helped seal its fate, and in 1970, Warden Allan Robbins shut it down, citing a growing drug culture in rural Maine, which he blamed for flooding the prison with inmates who couldn't - or wouldn't - do the traditional farm labor needed to run the operation. The farm reopened on a small scale some years later, but still produces just a fraction of what it did in its heyday.

"We grow lettuce, cucumbers, squash, potatoes, dried beans," Thomas says. "All kind of different vegetables, we grow."

And for the last two years, the inmates in the program have learned to raise chickens and turkeys - some of which will provide Thanksgiving dinners for the inmates. They're also starting to care for livestock; the farm now has four horses at its equine rescue center which opened about a year ago. The farm's latest additions are two Belted Galloway calves who were just born this month; they're the small beginnings of a new Bolduc beef program.

Today, says Thomas, it's still true that most of the men who come to work on the farm have experience with drugs - and little else. But, he says, that's why he thinks his program is important.

"I had a guy a couple of years ago that the only thing he ever did is sell drugs. And he found he had a talent for welding," Thomas says. "And he told me one day that he was glad he got arrested because now he has something to look forward to - he's got a skill that he didn't know he had."

"If I'm sober and got my mind straight, I'm a good worker," says 27-year-old Jordan. "Solid, I'm reliable, dependable, I'm an honest, honest man. You put drugs in the equation and I'm Jekyll and Hyde."

Jordan has been an addict for 10 years. He was sent to the prison in Windham in 2008 for the burglary he committed to support his habit. Then he violated his probation. Now he's back to serve out the rest of his sentence. But this time he's landed at Bolduc, where he's run the greenhouse all summer. And the experience has him thinking he might pursue some type of agriculture as a career.

"It's my type of work," he says. "I have ADHD - I like to be active and out there working and using my body. So yes, it's defintely something I've considered. I've learned quite a bit doing it. I thought I knew - I had a good grasp on growing plants, and stuff, you know, because Mom always had a garden out in the yard. But there's a lot to it. I've learned quite a bit. It's been pretty cool."

But just how many of the inmates will go on to put their new-found skills to use is not known. Randy Thomas says he often wonders about past inmates and whether they've managed to truly walk away from a life in the system. But, in a way, he says he's glad if he doesn't hear from them again.

"I really don't want to see guys after they leave here, because I want them to be successful and not come back," he says.

Photo:  Jennifer Mitchell

Editor's Note: This story was first published on this site on October 16, 2013.


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