What Caring For Bees Teaches Inmates About Life Beyond Prison

On a hot July day, Darrell, who is serving a sentence at the Clarinda Correctional Facility, pulled a black carrot from the floor of one of the prison’s three large gardens. He looked at the carrot in amazement and laughed.

“Wow! Look at that,” Darrell said. “Never in my life would I have thought that… I only thought carrots were yellow and orange.”

It was the first time Darrell had seen a black carrot. (The prison only allows the use of the first names of inmates.). Darrell and a dozen other inmates at the Southwestern Iowa Medium Security Prison are enrolled in a two-year apprenticeship that teaches them gardening, landscaping and conservation.

The real attraction, however, is beekeeping.

The prison had its first bees in 2018. The goal of the two-year apprenticeship is to teach inmates skills they can use after release from prison.

Beehaven honey

Inside what the prison calls the “bee yard,” Darrell, Clinton and Jacob donned loose white protective suits with mesh beekeeper hats to protect their faces from half a million dollars. bees.

They pumped smoke into the air to calm them down.

“So we smoke them just a little bit to get them out of the frame,” Darrell said.

They took out the frames of the white beehives, much like taking files out of a filing cabinet, to make sure the queen bee was healthy. But on some of the frames filled with honeycombs, they saw their tasty reward.

“It’s all honey,” Jacob said.

They will probably harvest the honey in August and bottle it under the “Beehaven Honey” label. The prison will keep some of it and give it to local pantries.

Life skills

Randy Gibbs, who was then deputy assistant warden of the prison, met an Iowa beekeeper, who gave him the idea to start the program. Gibbs did some research and found another prison with a beekeeping program. Clarinda Correctional Institution opened a classroom in 2017 and installed its first beehives in 2018.

“It was something that could help provide someone with a hobby and skill that they could end up spinning and making money,” Gibbs said, “and at the same time, provide the nature something usable like bees. “

Correctional Officer Gerald Nelson, who teaches beekeeping at Clarinda, said many guys are nervous about approaching bees when they start. But they learn to be calm and to work together.

“One of the first things I did when we started was shoot guys down, ‘Okay now reach out and grab a bee and pick it up and don’t hurt it'” said Nelson.

But the program has benefits beyond the prison walls.

“From a nature perspective, we need bees to live, to pollinate,” Gibbs said. “We had the access and the manpower to do it, so why not start it? ”

Bees are also important for agriculture. Randall Cass, a bee extension specialist at Iowa State University, said that when bees visit flowers to collect nectar and pollen, the pollen that sticks to their hairs spreads from flower to flower during their trip. This pollen helps plants to produce fruit.

“If we were to ever lose all the bees, some plants would still be able to produce, but they wouldn’t be able to have the high yields we see now without the help of pollinating insects like bees,” Cass said. mentionned.

Mount. Pleasant Correctional Facility, located over 200 miles in Southeast Iowa, is the only other prison in the state to practice beekeeping. Missouri and Washington prisons also offer beekeeping programs.

A soothing experience

In addition to learning a new trade, people in prison reap certain psychological benefits, such as responsibility, accountability and problem solving.

All three beekeepers said working with bees calmed them down.

“When I work with them, I kind of forget that I’m in jail,” Jacob said. “It’s just a really calming experience to have something like this to do here and to clear your mind and learn new things.”

Clinton said he learned a few things about accountability.

“By learning to be responsible for bees, you also learn to be more responsible for yourself, for your actions,” Clinton said. “[It] gives you a purpose in life, because when I go out, I intend to have bees. I do it fully. I really like it. ”

Newt Wright was in prison when the beekeeping program began. The prison sent him a beekeeper costume after his release – something they are giving away to others in the program. Now he has a beehive on his family farm about an hour northwest of Clarinda.

Wright says it’s like having 50,000 pets to care for.

“These little guys are counting on me to make sure I keep them healthy,” Wright said. “And if they have mites or something, I have to get them treated with medicine.”

Wright said beekeeping taught him how to work well with others.

“It gave us something to do together to build relationships with some of the other guys out there who were trying to do better,” Wright said.

Create empathy

There is research that prison animal programs help reduce fighting, antisocial behavior and the chances of returning to prison. Philip Tedeschi, a clinical professor at the Graduate School of Social Work at the University of Denver, has studied this.

“One of the things we’ve learned is that not only does it change our perspective on what’s possible in the world around us, but it changes our interpersonal neurobiology,” Tedeschi said. “Interacting with other animals also makes us feel better. It makes us feel more secure and it changes our neurochemistry. ”

Tedeschi said animal programs put a person’s empathy at work.

“And empathy is also closely linked to the commission of crimes, especially violent crimes, in that when someone has a greater capacity for empathy, they are less likely to engage in harmful behaviors towards them. others, ”Tedeschi said.

Tedeschi has mainly studied programs where inmates work and live with dogs, but he said there was a parallel with bees. In both cases, the inmates are taught to take care of the animals. And it can change their prison experience and their life for the better.

Follow Katie on Twitter: @katiepeikes

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