On a muggy Thursday afternoon, a few dozen inmates finished their shifts, dirty, mopping sweat, hosing down the pig pens. Here, on the Pasco jail grounds, inmates run a farm, growing thousands of pounds of vegetables each year, raising hogs and cattle for slaughter. They even grow the ornamental plants used in the jail's landscaping. Sheriff Chris Nocco said the program is vital; it saves taxpayers' money and it teaches inmates about life.
"Our goal is to teach these inmates what a strong work ethic is and to instill in them a sense of pride in their work and accomplishments," Nocco said. "Waking up before sunrise and putting in a hard day of work is something many of these inmates have never done before and that is what has led them to jail."
His opponent in November's election, Democratic candidate Kim Bogart, is skeptical of the agricultural program. If elected, he said he would review it to see if it's worth keeping — or if it should be replaced with something else designed to help inmates transition to life, and hopefully employment, outside of jail.
"Who is going to leave the jail and work at a pig farm?" he said. "Who is going to leave the jail and go to work at a cattle ranch?
"Is that a likely end for that inmate?"
Bogart, a former captain with the Sheriff's Office, spent 13 years as executive director of the Florida Corrections Accreditation Commission, which reviews Florida jails, and he served in 2009 as the interim chief of the Osceola County jail. As sheriff, he said, he would work with area businesses that would be willing to hire former inmates, and design programs based on that.
"Once we open the door and we identify potential employers," Bogart said, "then we would know what types of skills should be taught."
He believes working with inmates while they are incarcerated — teaching them life skills such as anger management, budgeting, parenting and computer classes — reduces the chances they will return to jail. "I want to make it clear: I am not a hug-a-thug person," Bogart said. "When someone commits a crime, they need to pay the price."
But he doesn't believe farm work helps prepare most inmates for jobs in the real world.
Nocco said the jail does prepare them — first, by getting them sober. For years, Pasco has dealt with a surging prescription pill epidemic, leading to crimes and changing the role of the jail to a detox center for many inmates. Nocco installed Celebrate Recovery, a faith-based substance abuse program that networks with area churches to give inmates support after they are released.
Nocco said the jail, which offers programs in areas such as parenting and high school diploma courses, is a "transitional place" because some inmates could be there for hours, while others awaiting trial could be there for years.
He and Pasco Sgt. Steve Wood, who has worked with the agricultural program since its inception in 2001, spoke of teaching inmates to have a routine, to have discipline — how to even mow a lawn — is worthwhile.
"We've got 30-year-old men who have never worked and don't know the meaning of work," Wood said.
Pasco has the most comprehensive agricultural program of any jail in the Tampa Bay area. Hernando and Hillsborough don't have any such program. Inmates in Pinellas grow ornamental plants.
But the idea of making detention facilities as self-sustaining as possible, with inmates growing their own food and maintaining the grounds and buildings, is not new. Inmates in Florida prisons have been tilling farms for more than a century. Ann Howard, spokeswoman for the Florida Department of Corrections, said Gov. Rick Scott has pushed the agency toward more farming as a cost-cutting measure. She said prison inmates now work nearly 900 acres at 48 different facilities in the state, producing 10 million pounds of produce each year.
"It's a job skill to learn how to do this," Howard said.
Pasco's program began with a small garden under former Sheriff Bob White. As that patch of dirt grew to a 3.5 acre farm, the agency added other programs: hydroponic vegetable and plant gardens, pigs and cattle. Manatee County Sheriff's Office, which has an inmate-run slaughterhouse, processes their meat and gets pigs in return.
The Pasco jail often houses nearly 1,500 inmates and the food grown serves them and the staff. In 2011, they harvested nearly 40,000 heads of romaine lettuce, about 10,000 pounds of collard greens and more than 31,000 pounds of cabbage, among many other foods.
Bogart said it doesn't appear the programs save the agency money when compared to buying produce and meat wholesale.
The Sheriff's Office said the agricultural program saved the agency $132,794.55 in 2011 in money they otherwise would have had to spend on food. But that figure doesn't include the time spent by staff running the unit and deputies guarding inmates as they work.
Jerry Haygood Jr., 42, said the program has changed his life. He's been incarcerated since April for violating his probation and has been in and out of jails and prisons for much of his adult life, serving time for burglary, theft and driving on a suspended license. Seven days a week, Haygood is outside by 7:30 a.m., working till midafternoon. He said he feels a sense of accomplishment he never had before.
He should get out in October, he said, and plans on marrying the mother of his two daughters. Then he hopes to start a hog farm on 40 acres he inherited in North Florida. He's researching grants to help him start.
"I took and took and took," Haygood said, "and now it's my turn to give back."
Erin Sullivan can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 869-6229.