County Agriculture Commission mulls putting inmates to work with apprenticeships, ranching

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How ya gonna keep ’em in prison, after they’ve worked down on the farm?

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How ya gonna keep ’em in prison, after they’ve worked down on the farm?

That rather tortured remake of the old World War I song title represents the hope of state Sen. Clarence Nishihara, an Oahu Democrat who leads the Senate Committee on Public Safety, Intergovernmental and Military Affairs and is vice chairman of the Water, Land and Agriculture Committee.

Noting a severe shortage of farmworkers and a need to teach inmates useful skills to keep them from recommitting crimes and going back to prison, Nishihara wants to increase correctional industry programs, especially apprenticeships in agriculture and ranching.

Nishihara and Rep. Clift Tsuji, a Hilo Democrat, outlined their 2017 legislative priorities Tuesday to the county Agriculture Advisory Commission.

“What we really want are law-abiding citizens,” Nishihara said after the meeting. “If you don’t really teach them some marketable skill, they end up on the streets.”

The state Department of Public Safety already does some agricultural programs in correctional centers on Oahu, and to a limited extent, in a greenhouse at Kulani Correctional Facility mauka of Hilo. In fact, the Waiawa Correctional Facility on Oahu grows enough salad vegetables for all the correctional institutions on the island, said Public Safety spokeswoman Toni Schwartz.

The women’s community correctional center on Oahu is growing taro, breadfruit and hydroponic lettuce.

Greenhouse operations started Recently at Kulani, although there are classes inmates can take to learn the trade, Schwartz said.

Public Safety relies on businesses coming forward to employ furloughed inmates as apprentices.

“We’ll do it; we just need for them to come,” Schwartz said.

The program isn’t without its challenges, however.

Agriculture Commissioner Lorie Obra, owner of Rusty’s Coffee in Pahala, said she’s short of workers to pick coffee.

“It’s been brought up before, but it’s not something that’s been done,” she said about a possible apprenticeship program.

One of the problems for many farmers is that they’re leasing land from others, who might not want furloughed inmates working close to their homes. That’s an issue yet to be addressed, Obra said.

Nishihara said he’s not sponsoring specific legislation, but is working with unions and interested parties to try to expand the program.

A law passed this year allows Hawaii Correctional Industries to sell inmate-made products, including produce, to the general public. Prior to the change, sales could be made only to nonprofits and government agencies.

The state plans a showcase and sale of inmate-created products from 9 a.m.-1 p.m. Nov. 18 at the state building in Hilo.

Other priorities the two state lawmakers discussed with the ag commission included invasive species and biosecurity, the prospect of two new Big island port facilities for screening cargo, agriculture theft and vandalism and drought mitigation.

The lawmakers urged the commission to set priorities it wants to see for the legislative session that starts in January and send those to the island’s elected representatives. It’s important to be persistent, Tsuji said, and the earlier the Legislature gets the list of priorities, the better.

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“If you think it’s important, you push, push, push,” Tsuji said. “It’s never too soon. It’s going to start getting hot and heavy.”

Email Nancy Cook Lauer at ncook-lauer@westhawaiitoday.com.

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