Source:Demonstrators protest against the closure of Ohio’s prison farms outside LoCI Thursday morning.
Truck drivers honked their support Thursday morning as they passed the crowd of demonstrators outside London Correctional Institution protesting the closure of Ohio’s prison farms.
The protest was held in conjunction with the prison system’s final dairy cow auction, also held at LoCI Thursday.
“We believe this is short-sighted at best,” Ohio Civil Service Employees Association communications director Sally Meckling said. “We think it’s somewhat of a taxpayer ripoff also since they’ve spent so much money improving the farm operations.”
Prison officials planned to expand dairy and cattle production three times, Meckling said.
That expansion, which included $9 million in new construction, was in its final phase when state prison leaders announced in April that the farms would be closing.
A chunk of that money went to two new state-of-the-art barns at LoCI.
Thursday afternoon, bidders walked through an aisle in one of those unfinished buildings, around tools piled in the middle of the space.
“Talk louder,” the auctioneer yelled a few minutes into the sale of lactating cows. “This building was not intended for an auction.”
A lone bark of laughter echoed through the space.
When the closure was announced, a press release stated less than one tenth of one percent of Ohio’s inmates participate in job training in the farm programs and “few — if any” inmates have pursued farming careers after their release.
As well as funneling money into more relevant program, the move is expected to reduce opportunity to transport illegal contraband into the prisons, the release continued.
No layoffs were planned.
But local employees, area farmers and union leaders — who are suing the prison system in an effort to keep the farms running — aren’t buying the stated reasons for the program’s closure.
“They construct buildings, they do welding, they do auto-mechanic work on large agricultural machines,” Meckling said. “It’s meant to give inmates a range of skills, and that what you want when you go looking for a job on the outside.”
Ohio’s third-largest industry is agriculture, she added.
LoCI farm coordinator Mark Reaver, who was raised on a farm a few miles down the road from the prison, said he grew up with “walkways” from the prison farm program.
“It gives them responsibility,” he said of the inmates in the farm programs. “It gives them something satisfactory in getting out of bed, besides just sitting behind the wire.”
Reaver heard a fish farming program is being implemented at one prison, with plans to sell the fish to the Columbus Zoo.
The new LoCI barns are also supposed to be repurposed, but he doesn’t know how, he said.
Either way, “something is off” with the plan to shut down the prison farms, he and Meckling agreed.
Inmates in the farm program can expect to work through harvest before state officials plan to begin selling off the farmland.
But once the land is sold, the prisons will never get it back, local farmer Joe Slagle said. A better move would be to rent the farmland if prison officials wanted to get out of the business themselves, he said.
Joe, who worked for the prison for more than a decade, lives next door to his brother Frank, who hand-painted two red and white signs to display in his front yard along State Route 56 between London and LoCI.
The signs call for Ohio Gov. John Kasich to stop the sale of the prison farmland.
On the prison farm Thursday, about 400 cows were sold, Meckling said. The cows were from the London and Chilicothe prison farm operations.
There was 38 registered bidders at the auction. Turnout was better Thursday than at yesterday’s auction in Lebanon, which only drew four or five, bidder Marvin Broering observed.
The sale of the cattle is equally puzzling to the bidders, he admitted.
“Lebanon had little facilities, I could see them closing. They were not updated,” he said. “But to see this spot close — it blows my mind.”
Broering, of Fort Recovery, bought 60 head of cattle at Lebanon Wednesday and 60 head of cattle in London Thursday morning.
Local prison officials declined to comment Thursday.
A hearing in the union’s lawsuit against state prison leaders is slated for June 16 in Franklin County.
Reach Audrey Ingram at 740-852-1616, ext. 1615 or on Twitter @Audrey.MP