Slotnick farm file

In this 2014 file photo, Josh Slotnick, director of the PEAS Farm, describes to Kalli Wurth the best ways to prune and cut the flowers that the farm grows for crop shares. Now a Missoula County commissioner, Slotnick is backing a plan for a farm at the Missoula County Correctional Facility.

Missoula County is considering a new way to keep former inmates from ending up back in jail: Some time out on the farm.

County Commissioners approved staff to pursue a grant Thursday to help fund a community farm at the Missoula County Detention Facility, where inmates would learn job skills and interact with Missoulians who volunteer to help out.

But don’t worry about the plan driving up your tax bill, said Commissioner Josh Slotnick, who helped write the proposal. It may actually help lower taxes if all goes as planned.

“If we spend grant money from a foundation on keeping people out of jail, that has the potential to save taxpayers a huge chunk of money,” Slotnick said. “There was 90 minutes of my time spent on this proposal, but we could save tens of thousands of dollars because we’re not spending all that money on these people stuck in the criminal justice system over and over again.”

The proposed farm would be made up of a core crew of longer-serving inmate farmers selected to act as leaders for the short-term inmates and volunteers from the community, according to the letter of inquiry prepared for the Bernard and Audre Rapoport Foundation.

Having community volunteers working alongside inmates will create opportunities for conversation and interaction that would otherwise never occur, Slotnick said. Before being elected as a county commissioner, Slotnick co-founded Garden City Harvest and directed the University of Montana’s PEAS Farm program.

“When people farm together, out weeding carrots and planting parsley, it eliminates the barriers to having a normal conversation. People talk much differently with strangers taking a walk than under fluorescent lights at a boardroom table,” Slotnick said. “Being able to have a normal conversation without that stigma attached is huge for building confidence and reintegrating into society successfully.”

He said the goal of getting the farm was much bigger than simply “because small farms are cool.” It plays into the county’s larger goals and commitments to creating jail diversion opportunities and lowering recidivism.

Kristen Jordan, director of the Criminal Justice Coordinating Council, said the grant request for $200,000 over the course of three years would help the CJCC’s mission of stopping the cycle of repeat incarceration.

“Research shows that gardening projects do help reduce recidivism," Jordan said. And while Slotnick’s background and passion for community farming might make it sound like the whole thing was his idea, he said the Missoula County Sheriff’s Office originally came up with the idea.

Similar programs in California, Minnesota and Connecticut have shown success. In California, where 65% of inmates eventually end up back in prison, a jail farm program in Oakland reported none of its participants had returned to prison in its first five years of operation.

While Slotnick said he understands most inmates won't go on to run small organic farms, they'll still be learning things that will help them find and succeed in a career they choose.

"The job skills are fantastic in farming. You learn group and individual responsibility, working with multiple variables, problem solving," Slotnick said. "We're not trying to train people to be lettuce farmers. This is a medium to teaching real job skills that apply to so much more."

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