Inmates mark holidays by destroying Christmas trees

by Amy Kingsley

The 60-odd inmates in the Guilford County Prison Farm did not have a particularly memorable Christmas. They dined on a traditional turkey dinner, spent a few extra moments with visiting family and each received a new pair of socks as a gift from a local company. But aside from that, Dec. 25 passed like all other days.

In fact, the inmates did not even have a Christmas tree until a couple of days after the holiday, when a nearby resident delivered the first used-up, desiccated specimen. The inmates here are charged with the unsentimental task of disposing of the relics of a holiday they themselves couldn’t fully enjoy. The Guilford County prison farm is the site of the area’s major Christmas tree recycling service whereby the ornamental vegetation is transformed into beneficial mulch for local parks.

The tree-recycling program started in 1995. In each of the years since 2003, the inmates have produced at least a dozen dump-truck loads of mulch from Christmas trees stripped of ornaments and tinsel. In 2006, the county generated more than 17 loads of mulch, an all-time high.

So far, only two trees have been delivered to the prison farm this year. They sat near the edge of a fallow field, part of the 800 acres upon which the jail is situated.

“It’s really a work training facility,” said Lt. Jack Johnson of the Guilford County Sheriff’s Office. “Everybody here works. They all learn a trade.”

Mulching Christmas trees is just one of a number of jobs the inmates here do. Some work in the greenhouses, others in the concrete shop where they pour molds; a few work in the woodshop. In the spring they plant crops and care for calves, Johnson said. In addition, the inmates often work on projects offsite.

Sales of flowers, concrete items and woodcrafts generate about $500,000 for the county annually, which partially offsets the cost of running the prison farm.

The farm wrapped up its poinsettia sales before Christmas, which is the last real moneymaker until flowers bloom in the spring. Now the greenhouse – which is several degrees warmer than the outside – shelters tomato plants that will most likely end up providing food to inmates and guards.

“Flowers are our big business,” said Sgt. Michael Davis.

Davis farmed for 17 years before he joined the sheriff’s office more than 19 years ago. His office is in a small white house whose construction dates back to the prison farm’s earliest days.

Black stonemasons built the original building, a handsome stone structure, to house the county’s black prisoners; it opened in 1938. Officials integrated the prison in the 1960s, Johnson said, and the county added it to its list of detention facilities in 1997. It is the only county-run prison farm in North Carolina, he said.

All the inmates at the prison farm are nonviolent offenders, and prison administrators take pains to ensure that no one with a history of violent or sexual offense ends up at the minimum custody facility, Johnson said. Only sentenced offenders do time at the farm, and their sentences range from 10 days to 18 months. Johnson said the average sentence is about 30 days.

“A lot of the guys who come here are laborers anyway,” Johnson said.

The prisoners get job training, and the county gets about 60 unpaid workers. They do anything from small engine repair to washing patrol cars and landscaping.

But Johnson hastens to add that inmate labor isn’t really free, since the county pays for the guards who accompany them offsite.

“Unfortunately because of concerns with staffing and money you usually end up with facilities like the Greensboro jail where they just warehouse them,” Davis said.

Although the Christmas gifts might be a little paltry, the prison farm sometimes imparts more intangible assistance. Recently Sgt. Davis ordered a pizza from Dominoes, and a former inmate delivered it. The inmate, who had worked in the kitchen, told Davis he was working two jobs and keeping his nose clean. Then he thanked Davis for all that he’d done for him.

Not all of the inmates take as much away from their time on the farm, Davis said, and some give more back to the facility than others. For an example, he pointed inside a converted hog house, where one inmate fastidiously painted an old tractor electric blue.

“The thing about inmate labor is that you really get people with good talents,” Johnson said pointing to the inmate. “Then again you also get inmates out here who have never even cranked a lawnmower.”

Some have to be forced from bed before sunrise, but others rise for breakfast ready to get to work. Soon that work will involve feeding hundreds of Christmas trees into a chipper/shredder and readying the resulting mulch for distribution in Guilford County parks. There the trees will nurture the growth of plants around them in the final act of holiday giving.

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