One sheriff's answer to holding down the net cost of jail meals

Prisoners at the Brevard County jail are often out fishing, and the sheriff thinks that's great. ''Whenever we can take our trustees (trusted prisoners) out on the river to catch some mullet, we do,'' says Jake Miller, sheriff of this east central Florida coastal county. ''It gives those people in jail something to do other than just sit there.''

Sheriff Miller's prisoners aren't just fishing. They're also transporting and butchering wild hogs the sheriff's deputies have trapped, and they're tilling the soil on the jail's farm.

Miller's goal is to eliminate at least half of the jail's $300,000 food budget by having the prisoners catch and grow their own food. With that extra money, he says, he can have three additional deputies patrolling the roads.

''I have not had one incidence of anyone going out to work causing any problem,'' Miller says. ''They like it. Those who stay in jail . . . are continual problems.''

Miller's philosophy is that jails should not be a ''waiting place.'' Prisoners can help take care of themselves, he says, and they can profit by the effort.

''The biggest fallacy we have is that prisoners should sit in jail and think about how society has wronged them,'' he says. ''An active body and an active mind can change a man. Just sitting will deteriorate him.''

And Miller says he's had so much support from the community that he hasn't had to spend any money from his own budget on developing the farm.

The county government gave the jail the 50 acres that now make up the farm, he says, and the Gannett Foundation gave him $25,000 to buy farm equipment.

The garden clubs in the county are planning to build a greenhouse on the farm , he says, and members will teach the prisoners horticulture while they are raising the young plants that will be planted on the farm's acreage.

Local farmers also have been generous with their advice, he says, and prisoners are learning how to operate a farm while growing their own food.

But Miller says the success of his enterprise is not necessarily in how much food the prisoners can produce, but in how much work they can do and how much they can learn.

''If it takes 10 times longer to do the work than it takes a regular farmer, I don't care,'' he says. ''I could take a tractor and do the work of 10 men. But I want to use the manpower to keep the men busy.''

Off-duty deputies trap wild hogs that have been causing problems around the Kennedy Space Center, he says, and after keeping them for up to three weeks for fattening, the prisoners slaughter and butcher them to provide pork for their table.

He says he next plans to have the prisoners raise domestic hogs on the farm.

For food the prisoners can't raise or catch, he says he's developed a barter system to trade the jail's produce for staples. But he said he won't go into competition with local farmers by selling what the prisoners produce.

''I'm looking forward to the day - and I think it will be next year - when we have such an abundance of food that we can give it away to charity groups,'' Miller says. ''The good Lord has blessed us with plenty of fish in the river, and plenty of hogs causing problems around the cape. Why shouldn't we take advantage of it?''

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