This is a forward thinking proposition for the Federal Bureau of Prisons to begin the steps of combining vertical agriculture with future high-rise metropolitan prisons.
While this proposition calls for an initial investment, the cost savings created by that investment will be enormous; potentially the entire budget of the Federal Bureau of Prisons.
What is vertical agriculture?
"Vertical farming is a concept that argues that it is economically and environmentally viable to cultivate plant or animal life within skyscrapers." http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vertical_farm
Vertical farms were conceived of separately by ecologist Dr. Dickson Despommier and architect Ken Yeang as future solutions to the problems caused by traditional outdoor farming.
What are high-rise metropolitan federal prisons?
The Federal Bureau of Prisons operates several institutions in downtown areas mainly as detention centers for pre-trial inmates. Their metropolitan location allows for easy and secure access to courts. One example is the 27-story Metropolitan Correctional Center at Chicago. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Metropolitan_Correctional_Center,_Chicago
Why do we need vertical prison farms?
The short answer is because vertical farms will be fiscally unsustainable unless they are also prisons, and that future prisons will be fiscally irresponsible unless they are also vertical farms.
It is the thesis statement of this proposition that the operating costs of both vertical farms and high-rise prisons can and should be folded into each other for financial, security, health, and humane reasons. I contend that by combining the missions of the two buildings into one, we will create prisons that are safer for staff and inmates, less violent, more rehabilitative, financially responsible, and which engender not only the health of the staff and inmates, but also of the surrounding metropolitan area.
In making my argument for the vertical prison farm, I am contending that ALL future federal prisons should be built as high-rise metropolitan farms. I am advocating a "vertical complex," which will be built as a long term detention facility for all security levels of inmates.
But to really understand why we need vertical prison farm complexes, we need to examine their horizontal equivalents, both the traditional outdoor prison farm and the conventional prisons run by the FBOP (those that are not high-rise). We need to examine what the advantages and disadvantages of operating traditional prison farms are, and also to know why most of them have disappeared (or in Canada's case, are disappearing). We also need to examine the traditional prisons run by the FBOP, especially in regards to the policy of building these institutions in rural areas for the supposed economic benefit of small towns.
The traditional outdoor prison farm
Since an inmate has to be housed, and fed, and had his health cared for, all at the expense of the government, it makes sense that he be involved in some kind of industry that returns some of that cost back to society. In the past, many prisons were also farms. They grew much of their own food, and also grew food for other wards of the state at mental hospitals and juvenile centers.
In the 1960's and 70's, with the spread of industrial agriculture in this nation, many local farms began being consolidated under the ownership of various corporations or cooperatives. The lobbying power of these organizations grew tremendously, and prison farms were seen as competitors that could be eliminated through political means. Reinhart (2008) discusses how Connecticut lost its prison farms when farmers complained about losing profits to them. http://www.cga.ct.gov/2008/rpt/2008-R-0081.htm This actually works well for the farmers in two ways: Not only are they eliminating a competitor, but they are also inheriting as customer, as now that the inmates do not make their own food, the state has to find an outside contractor to supply them with meals. In South Carolina, prison dairy farms are able to operate because there is not enough dairy produced by private farms in the state. These farms are saving the state money; however, the inmate workers have to endure 100 degree heat and twelve hour work days. http://www2.wspa.com/news/2010/jul/26/4/sc-media-getting-sneak-peek-new-prison-dairy-ar-624489/
Which brings us to the issue of prison farm brutality: Today, most prison farms in the United States are located in the south, mainly in Arkansas, Louisiana, and Texas. These farms have a not undeserved reputation for being brutal. Angola Louisiana State Penitentiary is a place where mainly white correctional officers supervise the often forced labor of mostly black inmates while they pick cotton in the Louisiana heat (they farm other crops as well, but you get the picture).
The vertical prison farm of the future will be free from both the brutality of the southern prison farms and from the competition of large farmers. The indoor nature of vertical agriculture means that inmates will not be working out under the scorching sun; they will be in a temperature controlled environment that is also free from pesticides (vertical farm's indoor nature allows them to grow food without the need of chemical pesticides). It will also be more secure than the open and expansive prison farms that require armed officers on horseback. The inmates will be in an enclosed environment where they can be effectively managed and observed. Inmates of higher security levels will work the higher floors, thereby reducing their possibility of escape, whereas minimum security inmates can handle the export of the food product onto trucks at the ground floor.
The vertical prison farm will not be in the same sphere of competition as large industrial farms. The reason is that large industrial farms cannot mass-produce organic food, mainly due to the inability to use pesticides and still receive organic certification.
The conventional federal prison
With the War on Drugs declared in the 1980's, prison populations began to skyrocket. At the same time, many rural areas in the United States were heavily impoverished. When it came to the issue of where to build all of the new prisons that would house these inmates, it was thought that building them in these impoverished rural areas would stimulate their economies. Unfortunately the economic benefits never came for these small towns. The prisons were unable to find qualified people from the local area to staff the institutions, and as a result, most staff commuted in from larger cities. The rural prison project has been understood to have failed at its goal of infusing money into these rural areas, and has only created institutions that are difficult to staff, thereby increasing the overtime costs that the prison has to pay to its officers. http://ppjr.org/prison/files/tracy%20huling%20prisons%20economy%20study.pdf
The FBOP already operates many high-rise metropolitan prisons. The surrounding metro gives these facilities access to a large pool of qualified staff, thereby reducing overtime costs. The Bureau should learn from its mistakes and build future institutions in highly populated areas. This will be a necessity if we want to build vertical prison farms as one of the advantages of having a skyscraper farm in a metropolitan area is that since most of the population resides in the city, the food doesn't have to travel near as far as it normally does (often times thousands of miles). The Bureau could either build skyscraper farms in downtown areas like the following example http://www.verticalfarm.com/designs?folder=3c954850-8253-4a4e-8844-bfff256ce44c or they could build an arcology type farm on the outskirts of the city as in this example http://www.verticalfarm.com/designs?folder=a150915e-a6c5-41fa-b69a-49844c84e9a2 Note the space for recreation yards in that last one, either on the roofs, or in the inner courtyard. The skyscraper version would minimize the so-called 'food miles,' but an arcology version right outside of the city would still be able to provide fresh organic food at a dramatically reduced transportation cost, and it would give more outdoor recreation space to the inmates.
The vertical prison farm as a safer and more rehabilitative institution
Considerable research has been conducted regarding both the therapeutic and crime reducing effects of being around green living things. http://www.paluc.org/pdfs/sprawl/health/sprawl_do_trees.pdf When you think about it, it is not hard to understand why. It is the same reason why landscaping increases the value of a home, people buy plants for their office, and that receiving flowers makes you happy. There is an entire field in psychology devoted to horticultural therapy, which examines the calming and restorative effects of working with plants. http://www.ahta.org/ This is not some new age alternative fad either, gardening has been shown to reduce PTSD symptoms in returning combat veterans. http://www.portlandtribune.com/features/story.php?story_id=10244 http://www.asla.org/ppn/Article.aspx?id=25302 It would be a hard sell to taxpayers that we need to put trees and flowers into prisons to reduce violence, because many municipalities cannot afford similar area beautification. However, the vertical prison farm allows us to fold landscaping costs into a profitable operation. Inmates and prison staff will receive the violence-reduction benefits of a green living environment without passing the cost onto taxpayers. It is further recommended that inmates with violent histories work in a floral garden, as the market for organic flowers is growing, and the soft colors of flowers have been shown to reduce violent behavior. http://www.aboutflowers.com/health-benefits-a-research/emotional-impact-of-flowers-study.html
The profitability of a vertical prison farm
Research has shown that the organic food market is on the rise. http://www.rodaleinstitute.org/20100319/nf_USDA-census-shows-profitability-of-organic-farming Because organic foods cannot be industrially produced in the traditional outdoor environment, it has been up to small farmers to supply the growing demand for organic food. One of the proposed advantages of vertical farming is its ability to mass-produce organic food due to its hermetically sealed environment. Also, a skyscraper farm in a downtown metropolitan area would be right in the heart of its core customer base: the educated and affluent urbanites that are driving the demand for pesticide free, naturally grown food. There are also restaurants and grocery stores in these areas, such as Trader Joe’s and Chipotle, who will buy organic produce. Furthermore, former McDonald’s executives are building a new healthy fast food chain. They say that “we think the biggest unmet customer need is great-tasting, delicious, affordable food that is also good for you." http://www.luxecoliving.com/luxeco-food/former-mcdonalds-execs-building-healthy-fast-food-chain-2/ The vertical farm also combines two different popular food trends, organic and local, into one package, giving the metropolitan area access to naturally grown food that is also fresh because the food doesn’t have to travel far.
But will people buy food that is made by inmates?
They will if it is properly marketed. Remembering who the core consumer of organic foods is, the affluent and educated urbanite, a campaign focusing on the humane and social reasons for building vertical prison farms should succeed. One way to put it would be to show the lifeless concrete prisons that we now operate, where inmates are idle for most of the day, and the brutal prison farms of the south, where inmates toil in the sweltering southern heat, and then show a gorgeous, green, vertical farm where inmates work in lush, clean gardens.
Appealing to the political spectrum
When viewed in the therapeutic light, it should not be difficult to convince the political left that the vertical prison farm is a more human alternative than the lifeless concrete penitentiary. It shouldn’t be difficult because it is the truth. However, one advantage of this proposal is its ability to appeal to both sides of the political spectrum. The political right will be thrilled that inmates whom we are paying to incarcerate can actually reimburse part of all of their incarceration expenses. When put in the context of a “no free ride,” it shouldn’t be difficult to convince either republican politicians or their constituents. Furthermore, since the thought of releasing prisoners due to budget problems probably terrifies the political right more than it does the left, the angle can be used that we are being “tough on crime” by implementing this safeguard from early release due to budget constraints.
Why the first vertical farm also needs to be a prison
Three reasons: The first is an inexhaustible supply of cheap labor, and let’s be honest, one that doesn’t rely on illegal immigration, as is the case for many traditional outdoor farms. A private company building a vertical farm in a metropolitan area would be right in the eyes of municipal law enforcement, and therefore would have to utilize higher paid legal labor.
The second reason, and this is a big one, is light. The need for artificial lighting in a vertical farm has economist questioning its profitability. Since not enough natural light can hit all of the floors, artificial lighting is needed to grow the plants, but this light comes at a large energy cost. However, there happens to be another sort of institution that requires a large amount of lights throughout the night. In the conventional prisons run by the FBOP, there is a need for high mast lights to be run throughout the entire night to provide security and to prevent escapes. So if you have two types of buildings that require a lot of light, then it would make since to combine their missions.
The third reason has to do with why a vertical farm would want to be secure just like a prison is. If you look at proposed architectural designs for vertical farms, you will see that most of them are gorgeous and futuristic. Many of them could potentially increase their profit as a tourist destination. However, there are drawbacks to this type of “open” concentration of food resources. First, in a post 9-11 world, there is always the threat of terrorism to any skyscraper. It is also not inconceivable that terrorists would try to poison the food supply of such a large population (such contamination would be difficult on a traditional outdoor farm, but given the condense nature of the vertical farm, it is probably more feasible). However, what I really think needs to be guarded against is the city experiencing a food panic, i.e. due to some natural or financial disaster, the public has such anxiety about the availability of food that it raids the vertical farm. Therefore a more practical design from a security standpoint is probably required. Since inmates definitely need to be housed in a secure institution, we again find that both buildings complement each other’s needs.
Why the federal government has to build the first vertical farms
Given the uncertainties surrounding a new technology such as vertical agriculture, Dr. Despommier has proclaimed "I think the real issue regarding the invention of vertical farming is, who will pay for the first ones?"
The federal government will for two reasons. The first is because no one else will. Private investors are historically skeptical when it comes to unproven technology on this scale, and they want to wait for someone else to take the lead on R&D costs, usually the military (for example, the development of nuclear fission power plants in this country was only possible due to government investments). The second answer is that no one else really needs to. Private investors do not have the economic hole that is the Federal Bureau of Prisons. Even if the vertical prison farm only succeeds in filling in that hole, it will have been an astounding success for the government. Private investors, of course, are more interested in building things, not filling in holes, i.e., they want to make profits.
Listen: The federal government doesn’t need to make a profit on these farms for them to be successful. While a private company wouldn’t want to invest in something that is a potential financial loss, the federal government already operates an agency that is a huge financial loss – the Federal Bureau of Prisons. Prisons are a cost that society decides to pay, and the United States pays more for them than any country in the world. So the real question that the government needs to ask about these farms is not how much profit will they make, but how much of the cost of operating prisons will they recuperate.
But there is a huge tertiary benefit that these farms would give to the federal government, and that benefit is health. Both the inmates and the surrounding metropolitan area would see an increase of fresh organic food in their diet. Taxpayers shoulder the entire cost of an inmate’s healthcare (even in cases where the taxpayer himself does not have health insurance), so it actually behooves us to keep inmates as healthy as possible. Currently most of the food that inmates consume is provided by a low-bidding contractor, and the quality is often atrocious. More than one riot has been caused by the inmates being angry about the quality of food that they are being given.
But it is not only the health of the inmates that the government is concerned about. By providing people in the surrounding city with low-cost, fresh organic food, the government will be helping to deal with problems such as the rampant child obesity that this nation is facing. Programs like Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move! http://www.letsmove.gov/eat-healthy and the HealthierUS School Challenge http://www.fns.usda.gov/tn/healthierus/index.html would be much more successful if great tasting healthy food was cheaper and more accessible in urban areas.
I hope that this introduction to the possibility of a vertical prison farm has spiked your curiosity. Prisons are an unfortunate necessity in our society, and given the rate of population growth in the world, vertical farms will one day be required as well. It is my belief that we do not have to pay for both, but that by folding the costs of each institution’s operation into each other, we can operate a prison that is safe, secure, humane, cost-efficient, and that gives something back to society.
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