Inmates learn farming and business skills at Duluth Correctional Facility – Bemidji Pioneer


SAGINAW, Minn. — Ashton Swanson is proud of his pigs. There is one with broad shoulders, like a bulldog. There’s the runt, brown with white on its back. And then the big mouth.

“Every time I walked into the bullpen he was screaming ‘oink-oink-oink,'” Swanson said.

The pigs landed at

Northeast Regional Correctional Center

around the same time as Swanson, and they have been in his care ever since.

Ashton Swanson looks over the pig pen during feeding time at the North East Regional Correctional Center on September 21.

Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune

Farm scene in a rural correctional facility
A pig relishes the shell of a pumpkin at the Northeast Regional Correctional Center on September 21.

Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune

Either way, Swanson has to feed, water and clean up after them. “Honestly, it showed me a lot of responsibility and discipline,” he said.

Swanson is one of more than 100 residents at the minimum/medium security facility in Saginaw, Minnesota.

Since January, he has been working in the NERCC garage, kitchen and greenhouse. A mechanic by trade, Swanson wanted to try something he had never done, which led to farming.

“I enjoyed it every day. It got me thinking about trying stuff, but I don’t know if I could really be a day-to-day farmer,” he said.

NERCC is Minnesota’s only correctional labor farm, overseeing 300 acres of hay meadows and 20 acres of vegetable gardens. Men can work on the farm, in the greenhouse, in the carpentry shop or in the newly built meat processing plant.

The primary focus is to participate in programming, which ranges from chemical dependency treatment to GED readiness, said NERCC Division Director Kathy Lionberger. But these work opportunities provide practical experience that can help inmates upon release.

Farm scene in a rural correctional facility
Gilberto Johnson of Minneapolis stacks pumpkins at the Northeast Regional Correctional Center on September 21.

Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune

“I don’t think anything comes out of sitting in a cell,” she said.

Work privileges are based on the nature of an inmate’s offenses and history in correctional facilities. If it’s not on the farm or in the greenhouse, there’s cleaning and maintaining the lawn, among other tasks.

Men who are cleared to work in certain fields are assigned based on their interests, skills and physical abilities, Lionberger said.

Although they don’t get paid, what they grow in the gardens is prepared and eaten on site, and anything they don’t use is donated to local food aisles. (Last year, they donated 4,000 books to the Second Harvest Food Bank.)

Farm scene in a rural correctional facility
Residents climb onto a hay rack on their way to lunch after working in a pumpkin patch at the Northeast Regional Correctional Center on September 21.

Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune

“We’re putting it back in the incentives and the programming… we’re putting it back in the men here,” Lionberger said.

While not for Swanson, for many inmates this is their first work experience.

Brad Olesiak, a 24-year NERCC employee, oversees the farm’s hay meadows and animal care at the facility, which includes 50 pigs, 300 chickens and 250 turkeys.

He supervises residents who are learning to drive a tractor, cut, rake or bale hay or shovel manure. Pigs are a big attraction for guys, he says.

“It’s sometimes difficult to be dealt with here. Some guys get very attached,” he said.

As the News Tribune visited, cold winds blew through the overcast skies. A handful of deer were grazing on the open ground.

Farm scene in a rural correctional facility
A pig eats flour at the Northeast Regional Correctional Center on September 21.

Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune

Behind the fence, chatter and static rumbled through team leader Curt Bogatzki’s walkie-talkie as men in neon shirts ripped pumpkins from the dirt.

Among them was Cory Knaffla. When he arrived in July, he was asked if he wanted to work in the kitchen or outside.

Farm scene in a rural correctional facility
Resident Cory Knaffla drives a tractor through the pumpkin patch at the Northeast Regional Correctional Center on September 21.

Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune

“I like the outdoors so I went here, which I’m glad I did. It keeps me busy and makes the time go by faster,” he said.

For Darin Jenkins, the routine and schooling he received helped him learn to take care of himself. He participates in the Native American cultural group on site, and he said he was allowed to stain and pray. He is happy to work too.

Farm scene in a rural correctional facility
Darin Jenkins of the Bois Forte Reserve carries a large pumpkin he just harvested while working at the Northeast Regional Correctional Center on September 21.

Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune

“I love it here in the field, watching everything we plant grow. It’s huge compared to when I got to now. I realize how far we’ve come and how much we’ve actually done,” he said.

Jenkins owns his own property and he plans to bring those skills home to share with his children.

Since arriving in March, Jenkins has decided to accept what NERCC offers. “It’s confinement,” he said, “but you learn a lot about yourself here. Instead of going back to that bad way of life, it teaches you to move on with something. better.

It’s rewarding for Bogatzki to see the residents turn what they’ve learned into something positive. “When they come out, nobody wants to hire the criminals. It gives them some work experience,” he said.

Farm scene in a rural correctional facility
Greenhouse and Vegetable Manager Curt Bogatzki shows off a large cabbage growing in the fields of the Northeast Regional Correctional Center on September 21.

Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune

Driving across the court, Bogatzki showed off a cabbage bigger than a basketball and talked about last year’s 5-pound carrot.

Bogatzki oversees up to 15 of his crew at a time. He hadn’t worked in corrections when he started at NERCC 12 years ago, but he has a long background in agriculture.

He is responsible for all elements of product culture. At this time of year, they harvest, wash and prepare items for the root cellar, kitchen or freezer.

Although there are no correctional officers in the fields with him and the residents, Bogatzki rarely encounters behavioral problems.

Farming can be difficult with the natural factors, and on site there is turnover and sometimes work with inmates who don’t really want to be there. “As they learn and develop new skills and abilities, they take pride and ownership in what they do and that helps them when they go out to be successful,” Bogatzki said.

Olesiak added: “You get letters, ‘You made a change in my life.’ … You give them respect and seeing that they want to change and hearing that they’ve made changes is very gratifying.

Farm scene in a rural correctional facility
A resident uses a tractor to turn hay to speed up the drying process at the Northeast Regional Correctional Center September 21 near Saginaw.

Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune

Meat processing plant expands

NERCC also recently unveiled its replacement meat processing plant.

Once it receives USDA and Minnesota Department of Agriculture approvals, the facility can once again begin processing its own animals, as well as receiving and processing meat from farmers in the area. region.

“One chicken per minute and more than 100 in an hour and a half,” said Marcus Diedrich, meat processing team leader. There is also an integrated space for retail sales.

Farm scene in a rural correctional facility
Marcus Diedrich, meat processing team leader, surveys the new retail space at the Northeast Regional Correctional Center’s meat processing plant on September 21.

Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune

There is a need for a USDA approved processing facility

in the northern half of Minnesota, Lionberger said.

NERCC received bond dollars in 2015 and 2017 and has been a legislative priority for St. Louis County, according to county spokeswoman Dana Kazel.

The new construction is adjacent to the old building, which has since been demolished.

In the NERCC campus carpentry shop, team leader Matt Oja made crates to transport the facility’s freshly harvested pumpkins.

Farm scene in a rural correctional facility
Maintenance worker Matt Oja, from the Smithville neighborhood of Duluth, sands a project he is creating in the Northeast Regional Correctional Center’s carpentry shop on September 21.

Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune

Several doors were in the works for a turkey barn and on the shelves were nesting boxes of various sizes, duck carvings and other work in progress.

The carpentry shop was reopened two years ago after a decade of shutdown, and most of the equipment has been replaced.

Thanks to the carpentry classes, much of the on-site desks, shelving, trim and cabinetry are the work of residents, who are able to earn certification, Lionberger said.

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