London prison farm is biggest in Ohio

Messenger photos by Becky Barker

London Correctional Institution farm worker and inmate Ernest Hollingsworth helps a calf less than an hour old through its first moments of life on the institution’s 2,800-acre farm.

Members of the National Association of Institutional Agribusiness observe swinery operations at London Correctional Institution during a Sept. 19 tour of the prison farm.

A newborn calf nurses gingerly from a bottle held by a farm worker, oblivious to the fact it was born on a farm where the uniformed employees are prison inmates and guards watching over them.

The London Correctional Institution, opened in 1924, is home to the biggest prison farm operation in the State of Ohio. The farm’s 2,800 acres of cropland and livestock operation is used by the Department of Corrections to support inmate populations across the state.

Dairy cows fill the milking parlor and produce approximately 592,000 gallons of raw milk each year with the help of six staff members, one supervisor, and 25 to 30 inmates working two shifts. A beef production operates with one to two staff members and five to seven inmates; the system annually handles 1,000 head of cattle at a meat processing center.

"We’re making the best of an old situation," reported dairy barn manager Ray Moone. "We’re milking 160 cows, but our biggest hang-up is a cow housing situation. When the heat and humidity hit, it’s hard to deal with. The plans are to build a new barn."

A total of 171 sows and three boars are housed in the facility’s swinery operation with 3,800 feeder pigs provided to other prison farms to finish at market weight. Two staff members, one assistant supervisor, and eight to 10 inmates are required to maintain the operation.

"We’re still raising pigs like we did in the 1940s," said manager John Swift, "and we rarely have problems with them out in the lot. We’re still pretty labor intensive."

On Sept. 19, with the Farm Science Review welcoming visitors for the 45th year just a few miles away, a group of farm managers from the National Association of Institutional Agribusiness toured the London prison facility, observing swine and cattle operations and learning about their central Ohio counterparts.

According to Vicki Justus, London Correctional’s public information officer, in order to be eligible to work at the farm, inmates must be within five years of eligibility for release and not convicted of a capital or child-related offense. Their application is reviewed by a unit management administrator, the deputy warden of operations, and the prison warden. The 250 farm inmate workers are housed in a separate honor camp located outside the main compound. They work under minimum security.

London Correctional was designed for a capacity of 1,950 inmates, although 2,150 are housed there today. There have been no escapes or walk-aways from the prison in 2007.

"Today, you’ll see the best prison farm in the State of Ohio and one of the best farms in the state," said Warden Deb Timmerman-Cooper to representatives of 16 institutional farms across the nation as they prepared to tour the farm, which was built at the same time as the prison.

The London Correctional farm also operates an agricultural equipment service and repair shop, which requires one staff mechanic and three to four inmates. A granary provides feed grinding and mixing for the three livestock operations with a single staff member and nine to 10 inmates on the job.

Ron Williams, a former farm manager, said the land originally comprised 1,400 acres in 1913 and was added on to over the years. Seven miles of open ditches were carved out of the land by prisoners using hand implements and steam shovels in the 1920s. Williams said the state paid $250,000 for the site and many of the barns and buildings date back over the decades.

"When it first started out, it was swamp land," Williams told the busload of farm managers, "and a lady told me they used to wrap the mules legs in burlap so they wouldn’t get bitten by snakes. At one time, the farm had a cannery and a smokehouse, and they grew broom corn to make into brooms.

"They needed to be self-sufficient. As for the mules, the last one left here around 1970."

Institutional Inspector DeCarlo Blackwell said, in addition to the farm, the institution also operates an Ohio Penal Industries garment factory, sewing inmate clothing for other prisons, a brush shop manufacturing a variety of products, and a dental clinic operated by Columbus State to create dentures and partials.

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