(NECN: Jack Thurston - Windsor, Vt.) - Cleaning and sorting potatoes kicked up a lot of dust Monday in a workspace behind the tall, razor wire fences of the Southeast State Correctional Facility in Windsor, Vt. Just in time for Thanksgiving, inmates were packing spuds for the Vermont Foodbank's Brattleboro facility to distribute to needy families in the southern part of the state.
Theresa Snow developed the project through her group, Salvation Farms. The non-profit's mission is to reduce food insecurity by forming partnerships to maximize Vermont's agriculture bounty, Snow explained.
"I believe they're taking a great amount of pride in this and they understand the importance of what they're doing," Snow said of the team of inmates packing potatoes into 10-pound bags.
NECN met crew members Matt Mabe and Matt Williams and confirmed through the Vt. Corrections Dept. that Mabe is serving a sentence on multiple DUIs, and Williams for violating his furlough following a previous sentence for car theft. Williams told NECN he also led police on a high-speed chase. The offenders earn time off their sentences as part of the work program, corrections officials said.
"The time I have here, I have to spend here regardless," Williams said. "That I can be constructive and put some good things back into the community -- it's definitely rewarding."
"It makes me feel good to know what we're doing in here is helping people out there who are less fortunate," Mabe added.
Mabe and Williams also spoke with Vermont Governor Peter Shumlin, who was at the prison to study how to better tap into the inmate labor force for agricultural processing. Shumlin told NECN he believes it's a model that could be expanded in Vermont, and show states around the country one way to stock food pantries to combat hunger.
"We've got a lot of folks [in prisons], many of whom are in on non-violent offenses. These folks are drug- and alcohol-addicted,” Shumlin said, giving one example of some of the members of the overall prison population. “When they're sober, they're good skilled workers. This is an opportunity to put them to work and help folks who desperately need food and need help."
All the potatoes for this job were donated by a Vermont non-profit called Tuberville, which asks farmers to grow produce specifically for the charity food system. For this first round of inmate-processed potatoes, Tuberville contributed 30,000 pounds of potatoes, Snow said. Snow and Gov. Shumlin both said they would like to see the program grow, whether with donated produce or with surplus produce gleaned from agriculture land across the state following harvests.
Some of the potato tonnage hit the road for the Vermont Foodbank Monday; the rest is expected to in early December, after it's processed by these workers who are doing something productive with their punishments.
"People are going to get a lot of good out of the potatoes," Mabe said.