Idaho Inmates Seek Redemption By Growing Potatoes For Others

Oct 17, 2013

Rows of potatoes stretch off toward the horizon where the South Boise Correctional Complex looms. Inmate Joe Molyneux sticks his hands into the dirt and comes up with two potatoes.

This is the fourth year that inmates have grown potatoes, corn and beans on state land near the prison. It’s Molyneux’s first year doing this and he wanted this assignment. 

“To watch these plants grow, and to watch the magic of it, you plant one little tiny seed potato and you get a big pile of them at the end of the year,” he says. “The whole point of it is to watch God’s handiwork.”

Molyneux talks about God a lot, even when asked why he’s in prison. 

I took some money from an employer, worst decision I ever made in my life, that's for sure. But God has his way of bringing us all back and I'm sure I'm getting there. - Joe Molyneux

“I took some money from an employer, worst decision I ever made in my life, that’s for sure,” he says. “But God has his way of bringing us all back and I’m sure I’m getting there.”

Deputy Warden Jay Christensen watches a dozen inmates in reflective vests move potatoes from a three foot pile to a conveyor belt that puts them in bags.

“Some of them have actually never even held a job,” Christensen says. “This is something that at the end of the day, they can look back at and be proud of.”

Charlene Taylor says prison farms can be effective for things like instilling a work ethic. Taylor teaches criminal justice at Boise State and studies corrections. She says there’s no hard evidence these programs help keep inmates from re-offending.

“Anecdotally, they do seem to reduce recidivism for some of the individuals that work within the programs,” Taylor says. “But the caveat to that is that oftentimes the inmates who work in these programs are low risk, they’re not very likely to recidivate anyway.”

She says the big criticism of prison farms is that they can take prisoners away from learning practical job skills. That’s something that is known to help them stay out of trouble when they get out. She says some states like Pennsylvania and Iowa have abandoned prison farms to focus on job training.

Many involved with this farm acknowledge that even in agriculture-heavy Idaho, these inmates probably aren’t learning marketable skills. But this program serves another purpose. Taylor says it may be unique among the nation’s prison farms.

“[Usually] the focus is growing food and materials to service the prison, to feed the prisoners and reduce some of the budget costs that prisons have,” Taylor says.

But in Idaho’s program, the crops go to the Idaho Food Bank. The harvest wrapped up this week and this year the prison farm gave the food bank 300,000 pounds of potatoes, 10,480 pounds of green beans and 18,768 pounds of corn. That’s the equivalent of 275,000 meals. Jay Christensen says that’s important to these inmates.

“They’re proud about the amount of pounds they put in the truck to be delivered, knowing it’s going to hungry families in Idaho,” Christensen says. “I think you would find that that’s their number one satisfaction in this job.”

Joe Molyneux agrees. 

“I’ve seen lots of those kinds of families. They’re just families like yours or mine that just happen to be down on their luck,” he says. “We kind of tend to think of the children that are getting this food that may not have a meal otherwise. And it just makes your heart warm to think about it.”

Taylor, with Boise State’s Criminal Justice department, says this program fits with an idea that has been taking hold in corrections in the past two decades: it’s called restorative justice. Rather than simply keep offenders away from society or prevent them from committing future crimes, restorative justice seeks to give them a chance to make amends. That can take the form of service to a victim, as well as to the community.

Taylor says that’s what makes this prison farm stand out.

“There is that element of redemption and giving back,” Taylor says. “And so through the lens of restorative justice I think there could definitely be some benefit there in terms of the offender feeling like they are trying to complete or fix the whole they left in society.”

An Idaho Department of Correction spokesman says they don’t use the term restorative justice in connection to the farm. But he agrees it is about giving offenders a chance to give back to society. As for Joe Molyneux, he hopes to be back in the potato field next year. But not the year after that -- by then he hopes to be back with his family.

Copyright 2013 Boise State Public Radio