A sign erected outside of the Suwannee Valley Agricultural Extension Center in Live Oak, Florida. Photo by David Hensley.

Free labor is the cornerstone of the American prison system. IFAS is but one of the countless entities taking advantage of it. 

They arrive at 8 a.m. They drive stakes into the dirt, hand-harvest vegetables and mow lawns. They eat packed lunches among the fields at UF Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences centers, where scientists conduct farming research. But they don’t punch in their time. They don’t receive paychecks. And instead of returning to their homes, they board buses that take them back to their Department of Corrections dormitories.

Through partnerships with the Florida Department of Corrections, at least six IFAS sites— including ones at Jay, Citra, Live Oak, Immokalee and Wimauma—routinely call upon inmates from nearby prisons to do the more tedious, menial tasks associated with agriculture. The practice has become so normalized, directors and farm managers say that without this prison farm worker program, IFAS centers couldn’t function.

Free labor is the cornerstone of the American prison system; IFAS is but one of the countless entities taking advantage of it. Since the late 19th century, it’s been Florida’s disproportionately black prison population that has laid the state’s roads, first in the form of “convict leasing” and then in chain gangs. Black people make up about 16 percent of Florida’s population, but 32 percent of the state’s prison population, according to the Florida DOC website.

Inmates’ jobs are assigned as needed either by a farm manager or researcher, and they work under the watch of a correctional officer or guard. In a typical day, a prison worker can do anything from groundskeeping to riding a tractor to collecting data.

At least six IFAS sites routinely call upon inmates from nearby prisons.

“On the vegetable farm, they’re just invaluable particularly because we really don’t have our own in-house labor force,” said Dr. John Dunckelman, operations manager at the Southwest Florida Research & Education Center in Immokalee. SWFREC’s prison farm worker program predates the 13 years Dunckelman has spent at the facility.

Typically, an eight-man crew from the Fort Myers Work Camp comes once a week to help pull weeds and pick fruit. In exchange, SWFREC pays the Department of Corrections a small salary through an invoice as part of their contract.

“Sometimes one day a week just isn’t enough and we have to ask for additional crews,” Dunckelman said. “But it’s well worth it, even at $2 a man hour—that’s a steal.”

The inmates themselves do not receive any monetary compensation from either IFAS or the DOC, multiple facility directors said. However, inmates are not required to participate in the farm worker program. If they volunteer, they’re reviewed by an institution’s classification team to determine if they’re qualified.

“The classification team reviews many factors such as sentencing history, crime, current custody classification and medical history,” wrote a representative of the FDOC Office of Communications in an email. “Inmates must be in minimum or community custody and demonstrate sufficient farming skills.”

Because most inmates working at IFAS were found guilty of nonviolent crimes, they reside in low security facilities and don’t need heavy supervision, IFAS employees said. Prison workers are generally nearing the end of their sentences by the time they can work in IFAS fields.

Dr. Jack Rechcigl, director of the Gulf Coast Research and Education Center in Wimauma, said the Department of Corrections tries to be selective in the inmates it sends.

Illustration by Ingrid Wu.

“They try to send us not the really bad apples, but the ones that are ready to get out and they feel like will do a good job for us,” he said.

At the West Florida Research and Education Center in Jay, Fla., around 8 to 10 inmates come five days a week to help mow acres of grass, clean buildings and assist in faculty projects. The center started with only three inmate workers, the maximum number that could fit in a facility vehicle. But commandeering three inmates really meant only getting the help of two, because the work of one IFAS employee would be lost while supervising them, said Greg Kimmons, farm manager at WFREC.

In 2009, Kimmons struck a deal with the Department of Corrections to expand the prison farmworker program. WFREC would provide inmates with 10 acres of their own land to garden independently, and in exchange, the facility would be allowed to enlist more inmates.

“I was just looking for a way to get free labor,” Kimmons said. “We were kind of the guinea pigs on this deal.”

The Department of Corrections also saves a great deal of money by using the produce grown by prisoners within their 10 acres, said Dr. C. Wesley Wood, director of WFREC.

“The amount ranges anywhere, in dollar value on a wholesale basis, from half a million dollars to a million dollars a year,” he said. “So we feed a lot of prisoners.”

Similarly, at the Suwannee Valley Agricultural Extension Center in Live Oak, inmates have their own space to farm and the ability to take back the yields of research trials. Inmates will plant crops for studies, like sweet potatoes for undergoing treatments to fend off wireworms or carrots for growing in different fertilizers. Once testing is over, they take the results back to the prison kitchen.

Funding woes are a major part of why IFAS centers use inmate labor. At Suwannee Valley, a lack of machinery creates the need for harvesting vegetables by hand, and there aren’t enough employees to complete daily tasks.

“Our center only has five or six full-time staff compared to some of the other centers that could have 15 or 20,”  said Benjamin Broughton, farm manager at the Suwannee Valley extension. “Usually there is not enough money to operate OPS (Other Personnel Services) people at all the times you need to operate them.”

Even larger centers would have difficulty running without inmate labor. Finding people willing to work in the Florida heat and at the pace and intensity farming requires is a problem unto itself, Rechcigl said.

“There’s such a labor shortage out there, and our budgets have been cut over the years, so we wouldn’t even have the funding to hire a full farm crew,” Rechcigl said. “So we’re very dependent on the program.

“To be honest, if I could get twice as many inmates, I would do it,” he added.

IFAS employees say that the collaboration with the Department of Corrections is mutually beneficial, in part because prisoners are able to experience life outside of a cell.

“They don’t get a lot of fresh fruit. So when they can have a sandwich with a slice of fresh tomato on it, they really enjoy that,” Dunckelman said. “They think that’s the cat’s meow.”

IFAS centers also provide inmates with the opportunity to reduce their sentence. At the Plant Science Research and Education Unit in Citra, inmates with a conviction of one year or less can reduce their current sentence by five days for every 30 days they work at the facility instead of getting paid. Inmates working at Gulf Coast REC also receive credit towards their release.

“I was just looking for a way to get free labor.”

Many prison workers have had little to no farm experience, so they receive training and eventually leave with new skills.

“These skills better prepare inmates interested in a career in the farming industry upon release,” wrote an FDOC representative.

Kimmons spoke of one inmate, an especially hard worker, who learned a lot from the program.

“I just about cried when he left,” Kimmons said.

However, Kimmons couldn’t provide his name, and the press can’t speak to inmates without going through a stringent clearance process.

According to the 13th Amendment, “involuntary servitude” cannot legally exist in the U.S. — “except as punishment for a crime.” After the Civil War, Jim Crow laws accounted for the void slavery left behind, effectively continuing it through the targeted criminalization and imprisonment of black Americans.

We’d like to think our current prison system is nothing like the one that emerged directly after slavery. But statements from IFAS employees echo those of captain of a work camp in 1893, made just 16 years after Reconstruction. Captain J.C. Powell wrote a memoir of his 14 years spent witnessing the system firsthand in which he argued for convict leasing.

“There was another [reason], and a potent one, for the employment of convict labor in the turpentine woods,” he wrote. “The work is severe to a degree almost impossible to exaggerate, and it is very difficult to control a sufficient quantity of free labor to properly cultivate any great number of trees.”

For all the inmate’s perks that IFAS employees speak of, like freshly sliced tomato, the prison farm worker program was never developed for their benefit. IFAS facilities could choose to function without inmate labor, but they don’t. Prisoners, on the other hand, don’t have a choice. •