Ecology + Justice + Culture in the American South

Powered by prisons

How incarcerated people powered the University of Florida’s agricultural research program

Scott Taylor, director of operations for UF’s Hastings Demonstration Unit, supervises St. Johns County Jail inmates renovating a UF building in downtown Hastings. Photo by UF/IFAS.

Until it canceled its contracts in September amid pressure from activists, UF saved nearly $1.7 million per year by relying on prisons and jails.

This is the second in a four-part series, published in collaboration with The Marjorie.

By Hannah O. Brown, Becca Burton, and Lyndsey Gilpin 

For two years, Camisha Alexis worked with incarcerated people in the prison labor program as a former field research assistant at the University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (IFAS) Plant Science Research and Education Unit in Citra, an unincorporated community south of Gainesville.

She said they learned a variety of skills, including data collection, pests and disease identification, and crop harvesting. Alexis learned a few things from them, too: Most never shared their real names with her, she said, but they taught her how to use sign language to communicate across the field — a skill they had picked up to communicate across distances while incarcerated. 

One of her strongest memories is a much-anticipated ritual on the Citra farm to celebrate participants who were about to be released from prison or jail. The team poured a bucket of ice water or Gatorade over the head of those scheduled to be released. “They always looked forward to that,” she said. 

But Alexis was skeptical of parts of the program. “It’s definitely a mixed feeling,” she said. “I don’t like that they don’t get anything out of it. They don’t get a certificate.”

Until it canceled its contracts in September amid pressure from activists, IFAS relied on the work of incarcerated people from state prisons and county jails for at least a decade. They planted and harvested crops in fields and greenhouses, worked with livestock, and operated machinery. They mowed turfgrass, assisted with data collection, and helped keep nine of its agricultural research stations running. Laborers were male and female nonviolent offenders — many of them incarcerated because of property theft or drug offenses — from at least 10 correctional institutions across the state. According to an Florida Department of Corrections (FDC) spokesperson, incarcerated workers typically finish off their prison sentence in a work camp or community work squad after they demonstrate “satisfactory adjustment.” 

“Generally, inmates in work squads do not receive monetary compensation for their work,” a spokesperson said. 

Aerial photo of the IFAS Plant Science Research and Education Unit in Citra, Florida. Photo by UF/IFAS

IFAS estimated the value of the labor at $1,690,500 per year, based on what it would have cost them to hire non-incarcerated workers at $14 an hour. These savings are crucial for the agriculture industry: The research farms provide the latest science on growing techniques and pest management to growers across Florida for major commodity crops including soybean and cotton. They also contribute information on roughly 300 specialty crops such as watermelons, snap peas and strawberries, a $137 billion industry in the state. For example, research conducted at the North Florida Research and Education Center helped combat Asian soybean rust, saving soybean farmers nearly $300 million annually, according to IFAS.  

But incarcerated people received no pay and — despite the university’s claims of workers gaining skills — received no certifications to provide to future employers post-incarceration as evidence of their training and were not protected by minimum wage regulations and were not allowed to organize unions or engage in collective bargaining. 

The Marjorie and Southerly obtained eight contracts between UF and seven state prisons through a public records request for contracts dating back to 2005. Some are signed by UF, but not FDC; others appear to be amendments to existing contracts. Other contracts outlining partnerships mentioned in a 2015 IFAS press release were not included in the public records request response, meaning the contracts provided by the university may not paint the full picture. Any contracts that involved an exchange of money between UF and FDC dating back to 2010 are also available publicly on the Florida Accountability Contract Tracking System. 

Incarcerated laborers were critical to the program’s success. As a graduate student researching nematode and weed suppression in cover crops from 2016 to 2018, Robyn Adair relied on their help to dig holes, pick strawberries, and assist with measurements that contributed to her lab’s research. 

“We helped each other out, but we also used a lot of inmate labor,” Adair said. “There’s only five or so of us in the lab and lots of holes to dig.” 

Some incarcerated laborers also participate in data collection and assist with the application of treatments for scientific studies. One study by Adair focused on nematode impacts to plant roots, and required the roots of certain plants to be dug up while preserving the structure of the root system. Incarcerated people helped students collect the data — but without adequate training, she said some struggled to collect the information accurately.  

“The root systems were completely destroyed,” Adair said. “We ended up with a lot of variability in the roots, so we just ended up not measuring that.” 

Bob Hochmuth, assistant center director for the IFAS North Florida Research and Education Center in Live Oak, said that while they’re “assisting,” incarcerated people are learning about scientific experimental design and scientific principles. “For many, this is new to them and we are working hand-in-hand to ensure they understand,” he wrote in an email.

But according to Adair, time for instruction was not included in the workers’ schedule. “It’s not like okay, you know, this week is training, next week is the real deal,” she said. “It’s like, no, we’re here. We’ve got to do this. Like, ‘Start digging. We want to get it done before noon because it’s so hot.’”

Adair said she asked many incarcerated people how they felt about the work farm — specifically, if they saw the experience as workforce training. “They’re like, ‘No. I’m a certified diesel mechanic or I have a good job that I got taken away from to come in here,’” she said. 

While she is glad the contracts have ended, she suspects that UF may lean on graduate assistants to fill the labor gap and possibly increase the cost of student tuition and fees to make up the cost. She is also concerned about what will happen to the incarcerated people who participated. 

“We’ve got a lot of systemic issues to work out that [ending the contracts] doesn’t really solve,” Adair said. “I was happy to hear it just because it’s a step in the right direction, but I don’t know what they’ll have the inmates do instead. Hopefully it’s not something worse.”

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, no prison buildings existed in Florida. Instead, Florida’s Commissioner of Agriculture — the supervisor of Florida’s state prisons at the time — leased convicts to private operations for jobs that relied on manual labor like building railroads and harvesting turpentine sap. 

“That is a truly horrific period of labor exploitation,” said Vivien Miller, associate professor of American history at the University of Nottingham. “Inmates are literally starved, they’re beaten, and they’re not looked after at all.” 

In 1913, Florida built its first prison in Raiford, located in North Central Florida. Today it is a 2,000-plus capacity state prison called the Union Correctional Institution, but at the time, it housed an 18,000-acre farm with thousands of cattle, sheep, and other livestock. Incarcerated people produced not only their own food, but food sold on the market to generate profits for the prison system. “For a time in the 1920s, the state prison looked like it could be profitable,” Miller said. 

In 1923, after the death of a leased incarcerated person, the Florida legislature ended convict leasing, and the state’s prison system established work programs in its wake. Educational training in Florida prisons did not officially begin until 1949, when Raiford began educational and vocational training programs. 

Today FDC offers 91 career and technical education courses in 36 vocational trades. One such course is a horticulture training program developed in partnership with UF and housed at the Lawtey Correctional Institution in North Central Florida. Incarcerated people who complete the voluntary program are issued a certificate, which is recognized as an equivalent to the Florida-Friendly Best Management Practices for Green Industries certificate program, according to FDC. 

“Inmate education and programming is at the forefront of priorities for the Florida Department of Corrections,” a FDC spokesperson said. 

But for Kevin Scott, a formerly incarcerated person, many of these programs are just “smoke and mirrors,” from FDC, “claiming to be doing good work while not actually doing anything.”

“In my case, I came out with a cabinetmaking certification, but never actually learned the skills,” said Scott, adding that the prison maintenance man who taught the class would put his feet on his desk and take naps when he wasn’t selling dip to incarcerated people.

Scott has spent years fighting for criminal justice reform and prisoner rights. Through the Florida Prisoner Solidarity group (formerly the Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee), Scott and others met one-on-one with Gainesville and Alachua County officials to get their message across: Unpaid prison labor is “slave labor.” 

In December 2018, he saw their work come to fruition when Alachua County, Florida, became the first municipality in the state to sever prison labor contracts with FDC. The City of Gainesville, Florida, followed suit, ending its contracts a month later. 

Through his work with two Gainesville nonprofits — Community Spring and Grace Marketplace — Scott focused his efforts on the University of Florida’s prison labor program. But while providing public comment on the practice to the UF Board of Trustees in June 2019, Scott said he was met with “an icy indifference.”

“It was as if we were addressing a room of robots,” Scott said. 

Tractor tills wheat at the IFAS Plant Science Research and Education Unit in Citra, Florida. Photo by Josh Wickham, UF/IFAS

While UF was required to pay the FDC $2 per hour, per worker in some of the contracts, others noted that there were no “financial obligations” between the two parties. UF officials said incarcerated people received the same two 15-minute breaks and half hour lunch break as UF employees, though this wasn’t explicitly stated in every contract. 

Most contracts state that incarcerated workers must be supervised by at least one work squad officer per eight workers. UF employees who supervised incarcerated people were required to complete annual FDC training. UF and FDC were also required to properly train incarcerated people to safely use equipment, regardless of whether they had prior experience. 

The contracts also required FDC to complete a daily work log and submit it for verification and a signature from a university official on a weekly basis. A public records request submitted in August to obtain copies of the work logs has not yet been processed due to delays caused by the coronavirus, according to the FDC public affairs office.

In addition to benefiting the university and its students, prison labor also benefits the state, Hochmuth said. At the center he directs in Live Oak, Florida, incarcerated people were trained in agricultural and general grounds maintenance, and learned tractor safety and operations, irrigation design and operation, fruit and nut orchard management, pruning, and harvesting. They grew and harvested an abundance of crops, including leafy greens, carrots, squash, cucumbers, watermelons, sweet corn, tomatoes, and citrus. 

Wheat at the research farm in Citra. Photo for Josh Wickham, UF/IFAS

A portion of that harvest was donated to participating prisons and jails to help feed incarcerated people and guards. Since 2011, roughly 2.3 million pounds of fruits and vegetables have been harvested at the center, saving taxpayers $1.8 million, Hochmuth said. 

Other correctional facilities that partnered with UF also relied on the food produced. The Marion County Jail relies on produce from the farms they partner with to feed thousands of incarcerated people each day. At an average cost of 65 cents per meal, the jail pays about $2,900 each day — $1,058,500 annually — to feed 4,500 incarcerated people. Without these programs, officials estimate the cost would increase to $3 per meal — an annual cost of nearly $5 million. 

“It’s going to hurt the jail in general because there’s going to be a lot of produce that we get from research projects that we will no longer get,” said Mike Holder, agricultural technician at the Marion County Inmate Work Farm in Ocala. “I think in the end it is going to hurt some of the research projects up there, too, because they don’t have the labor to get it up in time and get it in.”

The news of the IFAS prison labor program ending was met with dismay at the Marion County Sheriff’s Office, which previously partnered with UF and owns the work farm.

“If they pull the plug on the program, not only will the folks that actually work in the farm for UF be disappointed, but I know that many of the inmates will be disappointed as well as the citizens here in Ocala and Marion County,” said Sergeant Paul Bloom, director of the public information office for the sheriff’s office.  

Many of the incarcerated people who worked at the Marion County Inmate Work Farm also traveled by bus to UF research farms to provide labor in exchange for gain-time, or a deduction from their sentence, according to the sheriff’s office. But, under Florida law, incarcerated people are required to serve 85% of their sentence. A 2019 Florida Senate bill  would have reduced the required sentence to 65% and reportedly saved the state $800 million over a five-year period, but it stalled in committee. 

While the contracts were set to be phased out by July 2021, IFAS announced the closing of all contracts in September. The university would not provide answers to why the program ended, but the decision was made amid pressure from advocacy organizations that say it proliferates the inequities of mass incarceration and exploitation of incarcerated people. 

Jeanna Mastrodicasa, associate vice president for operations at IFAS, defended the timeline change, saying that they thought it would “take significant time to find replacement labor and funding to support the labor.” 

It appears those alternatives are already in the works. Mastrodicasa said the school is adding two maintenance generalist positions that pay $45,000, plus benefits. “The rest of the state’s maintenance activities are likely to be contracted out to services that are nearby the locations in need of additional labor,” she said. 

To replace labor related to research activities, Robert Gilbert, IFAS dean for research, said they are hiring about 20 staff at eight locations around the state. “The pay rates for these positions would range depending on the role,” he said.

When asked whether formerly incarcerated people would be considered for the new positions, IFAS administrators pointed to UF’s human resources policy. While the university requires pre-employment criminal background checks on all new hires, those with criminal backgrounds are eligible to apply and “may be considered for university positions,” IFAS administrators wrote in an emailed statement. 

Disclaimer: Hannah O. Brown and Becca Burton are employed by the University of Florida. Their contributions to this story were completed as private citizens and not as employees, agents or spokespeople of the university.

Carly Berlin and Anna Hamilton contributed reporting and editing.