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Mushrooms, self-esteem grow at prison farm
    #4517278 - 08/10/05 08:53 AM (12 years, 9 months ago)


Mushrooms, self-esteem grow at prison farm
Wyoming gives prisoners way to earn money, have pride in accomplishment

By Dustin Bleizeffer, Casper Star-Tribune
August 10, 2005

SHOSHONI, Wyo. - Depending upon how they're prepared, mushrooms can be an excellent source of protein, thiamin and vitamin B6. They're low in sodium, saturated fat and cholesterol.

And best of all, mushrooms can also help rehabilitate prisoners - not by inmates eating them but by providing a structured work environment.

"For us, it's essential. It's one of our biggest assets at the Honor Farm - not just the mushroom farm but all of our work programs," said Tony Thornton, associate warden at the Wyoming Honor Farm in Riverton.

Keeping inmates busy and giving them a sense of value can be a real challenge for prisons. In the late 1990s, Wyoming became the last state to become a member of the Prison Industries Enhancement Certification Program. Among other things, the certification allows goods produced within Wyoming's prison system to be sold and shipped across state lines.

With nary a portobello crop within 500 miles, the Wyoming Department of Corrections convinced a major California mushroom grower that the mushroom industry needed a fresh supply source for Salt Lake City, Denver and the central Rockies.

The Wyoming Honor Farm offered 20 to 30 inmates for the labor-intensive operation. The Wyoming Business Council granted a $250,000 "challenge loan" to help build the facility, and Wind River Mushrooms LLC made about a $5.5 million initial investment, according to the Department of Corrections.

The first crops of white buttons, crimini and portobello mushrooms began popping up in December, and the farm in Shoshoni continues to produce about 65,000 pounds of mushrooms every week.

Crews of about 20 inmates work at the farm, picking mushrooms and preparing compost. Each inmate works about 40 hours per week, Thornton said.

"For us, we do have plenty of work here, and we're able to keep the inmates occupied, and that contributes to the inmates' sense of accomplishment and doing something real," Thornton said.

In a recent interview, inmate Matthew McDermott, 23, sat on an overturned five-gallon bucket, plucking mushrooms and trimming the stems.

He described the methodical work as soothing and relaxing - a much better alternative to sitting in a cell, although the mushroom grow-rooms aren't exactly cheery.

"I like it," inmate Carl Hawkins, 34, said simply.

In addition to rehabilitative purposes, the mushroom farm allows inmates to begin settling financial dues.

Each inmate earns $5.15 per hour. Twenty percent of an inmate's wage goes into his expense account, and 15 percent goes into the Crime Victims Compensation Fund. Forty- five percent goes to either child support or to the Department of Corrections to offset the cost of incarceration.

Thornton said inmates who work at the mushroom farm often leave the system with $500, $1,500 or more.

"By far, inmates who work at the mushroom farm leave with the most money," he said.

About the mushroom farm

The Wyoming Department of Corrections estimates that in the first year of operation, Wind River Mushrooms will:

? Return $192,816 to the state's coffers (includes mandated payments from inmate wages to crime victims' funds and child support).

? Spend $1.76 million on materials from Wyoming (includes straw, gypsum, sugar beet lime, poultry waste).

? Pay $835,500 of salaries to free-world supervisors.

? Spend $562,000 on utilities.Source: Wyoming Department Of Corrections


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