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Prison Farm

02/01/08 5:55PM By Bill Schubart
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(HOST) Commentator Bill Schubart writes about life in Vermont from his home in Hinesburg. And lately he's been thinking and talking with friends about ways to make Vermont better and more efficient. Here is one good idea.

(SCHUBART) While it's important to find ways to do the work of state more efficiently, we must also seek out new ideas to generate prosperity. Vermonters have good ideas, and good leaders bring them to life. Here's one from three thoughtful friends who have spent most of their lives working to make Vermont better - not by trying to do less, but by trying to do better.

The very best ideas often appear at the intersection of two problems.

Vermont is losing large farms at an alarming rate. At least we are getting smarter about how to transition these beautiful and defining assets into new community resources - witness the Hinesburg Land Trust's collaboration with the Trust for Public Land and others to both preserve and repurpose the 620-acre Bissonette Farm just South of the village.

Meanwhile our prison population and incarceration costs are skyrocketing. Even as we export prisoners to other states, there's still talk of new prison construction. Many prisoners are non-violent offenders. Some merely possessed pot. Among professionals who understand that addiction and criminality are differing, if causative, phenomena, there's finally talk of decriminalization. This may help.

Now, let's combine the loss of large farms and the need for more and smarter prison facilities.

When I was a child, one of the largest farm operations around was the Waterbury State Hospital, where patients worked, learned new skills and provided food for the hospital. The idea never left me that if I were somehow to end up there, I'd want to work on the farm and be with the animals.

Imagine a large failing farm operation that's not auctioned, but actually expands and diversifies into an alternative to incarceration for non-violent offenders. It would also function as a prisoner re-entry facility, graduating productive citizens by developing their vocational and social skills through a mix of education and training in a farm environment. Imagine that the farm not only generated fruit, vegetable, dairy, animal produce and feed, but also taught the many skills intrinsic to farming, like carpentry, plumbing, electrical, HVAC, welding, auto mechanics, cropping, animal husbandry, horticulture and greenhouse, computers, bookkeeping and heavy equipment operation. It would also impart life skills
like achieving goals and showing up on time.

Corrections would partner with The Land Trust to acquire an appropriate site and infrastructure. It would then engage mentoring and training organizations like Vermont Works for Women, VT Youth Conservation Corp, and Community High School of VT. The private sector would help with donations of equipment and future jobs for graduates. Faith and recovery communities like Camp Agape, Maple Leaf Farm, Day One, Narcotics Anonymous and Teen Challenge would also play important roles.

It's not enough to slash budgets and complain. We must be inventive to succeed. Vermont's economic future is dependent on good ideas, ideas that sometimes make lemonade out of lemons like this one from good friends David, Chuck and Ross.

You can find more commentaries by Bill Schubart at VPR-dot-net.
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