The Wisconsin Department of Corrections runs and trains prisoners for dairy worker skills at four state farms. The first class of certified dairy workers graduated last month.


WAUPUN - When Cody first started working at the Waupun State Farm, he was in the office, managing the payroll. Then he set foot in the milking parlor, where he learned that dealing with cows wasn’t quite the same thing as dealing with numbers.

“Patience is a big thing for cows,” said Cody, who like other inmates in this story is being identified by his first name only in accordance with Department of Corrections protocol.

The 24-year-old CNC machinist, originally from West Bend, had never worked on a dairy farm, but he was soon adjusting to the long hours, helping feed the calves and even chasing down loose heifers.

Cody is one of about 60 Wisconsin inmates who manage the 1,093 cows that produce milk for Wisconsin and Minnesota prisons — a self-sustaining program that corrections officials say allows inmates not only to make money but to develop good work habits and gain post-release skills.

This year, the Department of Corrections partnered with Moraine Park Technical College to develop a dairy worker training program for inmates at the Waupun State Farm.

1st class of graduates

Last month, the Department of Corrections graduated its first class of eight graduates, who are now certified in milking and caring for cows and farm maintenance skills.

The program has the potential to be a source of greatly needed labor for dairy farmers across the state.

Certificate aside, inmates have been working on the farm for years. After all, Waupun is part of Wisconsin’s long history of inmate labor, given that the first state prison was built here in the 1850s, said Wes Ray, director of the Bureau of Correctional Enterprises, which oversees the farms.

Along with a dairy in Waupun, the state Department of Corrections operates three dairy farms in Waupun, Fox Lake and Oregon. A fourth, in Green Bay, is dormant, according to Ray.

Wisconsin is one of seven states with prison dairy operations. The others are California, Colorado, Georgia, Montana, Nevada and Tennessee, said Wil Heslop, National Correctional Industries Association director of operations. The federal prison system also runs dairy operations.

“We’re proving grounds for work release,” Ray said. Inmates from the nearby John C. Burke Correctional Center who do well on the farm go on to work-release programs, where they work for local private employers at a higher wage.

Only inmates who have not exhibited violent behavior for at least 12 months can work on the farm or in the dairy.

In addition to cows, the Waupun farm also has some 17,000 acres for feed crops. Workers on the farm don’t just milk cows — they work in all aspects of operations, learning to use and repair equipment. Some, like a professional mechanic who once saved the farm thousands of dollars in repairs, bring other bodies of knowledge to the job, Ray said.

Milk and ice cream

Just a short drive away from the Waupun farm, about 20 inmates log hours at the dairy, where the milk is pasteurized and packaged and where ice cream is made.

The mesmerizing nature of the job — milk cartons or ice cream cups making their way down a conveyor belt — can also make it monotonous. Sometimes, workers come up with little games to play, competing to see who can pack the most boxes in a set amount of time.

Constant worker turnover due to people moving to other facilities or being released means Leon, an inmate from Milwaukee, now trains new workers at the dairy, too.

Inmates start out earning 50 cents per hour and work their way up to $1.50.

Though that money can help pay off restitution or buy hygiene supplies or snacks at the prison canteen, the work itself is valuable. It breaks the monotony of life behind bars, workers interviewed said.

The farms and dairy do not rely on taxpayer money, officials said.

Last year, Wisconsin’s prison dairy operations produced more than 2.6 million gallons of milk, 1 million cups of ice cream and 400,000 cups of sherbet for consumption, selling another 322,840 pounds of milk and 526,915 pounds of cream.

The market value of these products totals some $5.1 million, a mere drop in the bucket of Wisconsin’s dairy industry, according to the DOC.

The state sells these products to prisons in Wisconsin and Minnesota. It also sells some cream to the University of Wisconsin-Madison for the university's famous ice cream at Babcock Hall.

For some workers, being around so much milk has its downsides.

“I don’t drink a lot of milk anymore,” Leon said, “now that I finally see how it’s made.”

But the ice cream? With classic flavors like chocolate and vanilla, and lemon and orange sherbet, that’s harder to resist, he said.

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