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Inmates learn farming, trade skills at Duluth correctional facility

“I don’t think anything comes out of sitting in a cell,” said Kathy Lionberger, division director at the Northeast Regional Corrections Center.

Farm scene at rural correctional facility
Ashton Swanson checks on the pigs during feeding time at the Northeast Regional Correctional Center on Sept. 21 near Saginaw.
Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune
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SAGINAW, Minn. — Ashton Swanson’s proud of his pigs. There’s one with broad shoulders, like a bulldog. There’s the runt, brown with white on its back. And then, the loud mouth.

“Every time I walk in the pen, he’d be ‘oink-oink-oink’ yelling at me,” Swanson said.

The pigs landed at the Northeast Regional Corrections Center around the same time as Swanson, and they’ve been in his care ever since.

Farm scene at rural correctional facility
Ashton Swanson looks over the pig enclosure during feeding time at the Northeast Regional Correctional Center on Sept. 21.
Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune
Farm scene at rural correctional facility
A pig enjoys the hull of a pumpkin at the Northeast Regional Correctional Center on Sept. 21.
Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune

No matter what, Swanson has to feed, water and clean up after them. “It’s honestly shown me a lot of responsibility and discipline,” he said.

Swanson is one of the more than 100 residents at Saginaw, Minnesota’s minimum/medium security facility.

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Since January, he has worked in NERCC’s garage, kitchen and greenhouse. A mechanic by trade, Swanson wanted to try something he’d never done, which led to the farm.

“I’ve enjoyed it every day. It’s made me think about trying stuff, but I don’t know if I could actually be a farmer day in and day out,” he said.

NERCC is Minnesota’s only correctional work farm, overseeing 300 acres of hayfields and 20 acres in vegetable gardens. Men can work in the farm, greenhouse, in the carpentry workshop or the newly built meat processing facility.

The primary objective is attending programming, which ranges from chemical dependency treatment to GED prep, said Kathy Lionberger, NERCC division director. But these work opportunities offer hands-on experience that can help inmates when they’re released.

Farm scene at rural correctional facility
Gilberto Johnson, of Minneapolis, stacks pumpkins at the Northeast Regional Correctional Center on Sept. 21.
Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune

“I don’t think anything comes out of sitting in a cell,” she said.

Work privileges are based on the nature of an inmate’s offenses and their prior history in correctional facilities. If not on the farm or in the greenhouse, there’s cleaning and lawn maintenance, among other tasks.

Men who are cleared to work in certain areas are assigned according to their interest, skills and physical ability, said Lionberger.

While they’re not paid, what they grow in the gardens is prepared and eaten on-site and whatever they don’t use is donated to local food shelves. (Last year, they donated 4,000 pounds to Second Harvest Food Bank.)

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Farm scene at rural correctional facility
Residents ride on a hay rack on the way to lunch after working in a pumpkin field at the Northeast Regional Correctional Center on Sept. 21.
Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune

“We put things back into incentives and programming … we put it back into the men here,” said Lionberger.

While it wasn’t the case for Swanson, for many of the inmates this is their first work experience.

Along with well-being checks, cell searches and intakes, Jordan Myles is responsible for mentoring new correction officers at the minimum/medium security institution.

Brad Olesiak, a 24-year NERCC employee, supervises the farm’s hayfields and the care of the facility’s animals, which includes 50 pigs, 300 chickens and 250 turkeys.

He oversees residents learning to drive a tractor, cutting, raking or baling hay or shoveling manure. The pigs are a big attraction for the guys, he said.

“It is hard sometimes being that they do get processed here. Some guys get very attached,” he said.

During the News Tribune visit, cold winds blew through the overcast sky. A handful of deer grazed on the open land.

Farm scene at rural correctional facility
A pig enjoys farina at the Northeast Regional Correctional Center on Sept. 21.
Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune

Behind the fencing, chatter and static broke through crew leader Curt Bogatzki’s walkie-talkie as men in neon shirts plucked pumpkins out of the dirt.

Among them was Cory Knaffla. When he arrived in July, he was asked if he wanted to work in the kitchen or outside.

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Farm scene at rural correctional facility
Resident Cory Knaffla drives a tractor in the pumpkin field at the Northeast Regional Correctional Center on Sept. 21.
Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune

“I like the outdoors, so I went with out here, which I’m glad I did. It keeps me busy and makes time go by faster,” he said.

For Darin Jenkins, the routine and schooling he has received has helped him learn to take care of himself. He participates in the on-site Native American culture group, and he said he’s allowed to smudge and pray. He’s excited to be working, too.

Farm scene at rural correctional facility
Darin Jenkins, of the Bois Forte Reservation, carries a large pumpkin he just harvested while working at the Northeast Regional Correctional Center on Sept. 21.
Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune

“I love it out here in the field, watching everything we plant grow. It’s huge compared to when I first arrived to now. I realize how far I came and how much we actually did,” he said.

Jenkins has property of his own, and he plans to take these skills home to share with his children.

Since arriving in March, Jenkins has decided to accept what NERCC is offering. “It is lockup,” he said, “but you learn a lot about yourself here. Instead of going back to that bad way of life, it teaches you to move forward with something better.”

It’s gratifying for Bogatzki to witness residents transfer what they learn to something positive. “When they get out, no one wants to hire the felons. It gives them some work experience,” he said.

Farm scene at rural correctional facility
Greenhouse and vegetable manager Curt Bogatzki displays a large cabbage growing in the fields at the Northeast Regional Correctional Center on Sept. 21.
Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune

Driving through the grounds, Bogatzki showed a cabbage larger than a basketball and told of last year’s 5-pound carrot.

Bogatzki oversees up to 15 men on his crew at one time. He hadn’t worked in corrections when he started at NERCC 12 years ago, but he has lifelong farming experience.

He’s in charge of all elements of growing produce. This time of year, they’re harvesting, washing and prepping items for the root cellar, the kitchen or the freezer.

While there are no correctional officers in the fields with him and the residents, Bogatzki rarely runs into behavioral issues.

Farming can be tough with the natural factors, and on-site, there’s turnover and sometimes working with inmates who don’t really want to be there. “As they learn and develop new skills and abilities, they take some pride and ownership of what they’re doing and it helps them when they get out to succeed,” Bogatzki said.

Added Olesiak: “You get letters, ‘You made a change in my life.’ … You give them respect and seeing that they want to change and hearing they did make changes is very gratifying.”

Farm scene at rural correctional facility
A resident uses a tractor to turn hay to speed the drying process at the Northeast Regional Correctional Center on Sept. 21 near Saginaw.
Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune

Meat processing plant expands

NERCC also recently unveiled its replacement meat processing plant.

Once it receives approvals from the USDA and the Minnesota Department of Agriculture, the facility can again begin processing its own animals — as well as receive and process meat from area farmers.

“A chicken a minute and more than 100 in an hour and half,” estimated Marcus Diedrich, meat processing crew leader. There’s also a built-in space for retail sales.

Farm scene at rural correctional facility
Marcus Diedrich, meat processing crew leader, looks over the new retail space in the meat processing plant at the Northeast Regional Correctional Center on Sept. 21.
Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune

There’s a need for a USDA-approved processing facility in the northern half of Minnesota, said Lionberger.

NERCC received bonding dollars in 2015 and 2017 and has been a legislative priority for St. Louis County, according to Dana Kazel, county spokesperson.

The new build is adjacent to the old building, which has since been torn down.

Carpentry shop reopens

In NERCC’s on-campus carpentry shop, crew lead Matt Oja crafted crates to transport the facility’s freshly harvested pumpkins.

Farm scene at rural correctional facility
Maintenance employee Matt Oja, of Duluth's Smithville neighborhood, sands a project he is creating in the wood shop at the Northeast Regional Correctional Center on Sept. 21.
Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune

In process were several doors for a turkey barn and on the shelves sat birdhouses in many sizes, duck sculptures and other in-progress works.

The carpentry shop was reopened two years ago after a decade off, and most of the equipment was replaced.

Through carpentry classes, much of the desks, shelves, trim and cabinets on-site are the handiwork of the residents, who are able to earn certification, said Lionberger.

Melinda Lavine is an award-winning, multidisciplinary journalist with 16 years professional experience. She joined the Duluth News Tribune in 2014, and today, she writes about the heartbeat of our community: the people.

Melinda grew up in central North Dakota, a first-generation American and the daughter of a military dad.

She earned bachelors degrees in English and Communications from the University of North Dakota in 2006, and started her career at the Grand Forks (N.D.) Herald that summer. She helped launch the Herald's features section, as the editor, before moving north to do the same at the DNT.

Contact her: 218-723-5346, mlavine@duluthnews.com.
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