For a century, Carson City prison dairy inmates work to change their lives.
WRITTEN BY BARBARA TWITCHELL
PHOTOS BY CANDICE NYANDO
The setting is downright pastoral. Cows, barns, farm equipment, busy ranch hands tending to their daily chores. It could be any ranch anywhere.
In fact, if you didn’t have to check in at the first building, the one with the armed guards, you would never know that this isn’t just any ranch. This is the Northern Nevada Correctional Center’s Prison Ranch, located in the heart of Carson City — and most of those busy workers are inmates.
Ranch manager Justin Pope has worked there for 15 years, doing just about every non-inmate job during that time. The usual joke — why hasn’t he gotten time off for good behavior? — causes him to smile but brings a quick response.
“Actually, this is a great job!” the native Nevadan says.
By the numbers
The 1,100-acre prison ranch might be one of the best-kept secrets around. Despite the fact that it has operated for a century, few locals know it exists. Pope welcomes the opportunity to change that observation and bring well-deserved attention to its excellent farm-to-table dairy program.
Although Pope says it’s a small dairy ranch by industry standards, its numbers are impressive. The ranch boasts a robust herd of about 100 cows, yielding an annual production of about 236,000 gallons of raw milk. About 157,000 gallons of that are processed on site, and served at 10 Northern Nevada correctional facilities. The excess raw milk is sold to a distributor for commercial processing.
The dairy ranch is almost entirely self-sustaining. The cows are primarily fed a forage-based diet, which is grown on site. Maintaining four to five bulls, the inmates breed their own stock of Holsteins and provide the necessary routine upkeep and basic veterinary care — including artificial insemination, calf delivery, diagnoses of standard maladies, and medication administration — to sustain the health of the herd.
The mechanical milking is done about 50 feet from the processing plant, creating an impressively efficient procedure that allows the product to go from the cow’s udder to the processing room’s milk tank in a matter of minutes. It’s then pasteurized and homogenized, subjected to rigorous testing as required by law, then packaged for transport to other correctional centers throughout Northern Nevada.
And all of this work is done by well-trained inmates, under the guidance and direction of four incredibly knowledgeable staff members.
Making a difference
It turns out the dairy ranch is a win-win situation for everyone — the prison, the taxpayers, the inmates, and even the cows. The program provides milk for inmates’ consumption while also yielding a small profit to offset other costs. Additionally, it gives prisoners a constructive way to utilize their time during incarceration and the valuable opportunity to learn new skills.
“Some of these guys never had real jobs before, never had any work skills,” Pope says. “Working here builds up a work ethic. Plus, the actual technical skills they’re learning might help them find employment once they leave here.”
That’s important for inmates at this minimum-security ranch, all non-violent offenders, most of whom have a year or less left to serve. Building a sense of responsibility, self-respect, and the ability to be productive in the outside world is a key part of their successful rehabilitation.
“The Nevada Department of Corrections actually did a study on the horse-training program [also on the ranch], and the recidivism rate was about half the rate of the regular prison population,” Pope says. “It made a huge impact on those guys. I believe it would be the same with the guys who work the dairy program.”
And how do the cows win?
“You see a different side of the inmates when they start working with the animals,” Pope says. “The guys become really attached to them. These cows are better cared for than probably any cows anywhere.”
Reno writer Barbara Twitchell and photographer Candice Nyando spent an afternoon observing the inmates as they went about their work at the ranch. The women were amazed by the scope of the prison dairy program and developed a profound appreciation for the hard work and dedication of the staff and inmates who work there.