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Prisoners Bag Potatoes for Needy Residents

  • Inmate Matt Williams, of Rutland, scans the conveyor for defective potatoes while Theresa Snow, of Salvation Farms, shows Governor Peter Shumlin the harvest at the Windsor prison.<br/>(Valley News - Sarah Priestap)

    Inmate Matt Williams, of Rutland, scans the conveyor for defective potatoes while Theresa Snow, of Salvation Farms, shows Governor Peter Shumlin the harvest at the Windsor prison.
    (Valley News - Sarah Priestap) Purchase photo reprints »

  • Inmate Matt Mabe, of Saxtons River, Vt., helps clean potatoes at the Windsor prison. They are to be donated to local food shelves and shelters.<br/>(Valley News - Sarah Priestap)

    Inmate Matt Mabe, of Saxtons River, Vt., helps clean potatoes at the Windsor prison. They are to be donated to local food shelves and shelters.
    (Valley News - Sarah Priestap) Purchase photo reprints »

  • Matt Mabe dumps a crate of potatoes into a machine for cleaning while being documented by a TV news camera at the Windsor prison.<br/>(Valley News - Sarah Priestap)

    Matt Mabe dumps a crate of potatoes into a machine for cleaning while being documented by a TV news camera at the Windsor prison.
    (Valley News - Sarah Priestap) Purchase photo reprints »

  • Surrounded by area news outlets, Mike Place loads pallets of packaged potatoes into a truck headed for distribution to Vermont food shelves and shelters.<br/>(Valley News - Sarah Priestap)

    Surrounded by area news outlets, Mike Place loads pallets of packaged potatoes into a truck headed for distribution to Vermont food shelves and shelters.
    (Valley News - Sarah Priestap) Purchase photo reprints »

  • Inmate Matt Williams, of Rutland, scans the conveyor for defective potatoes while Theresa Snow, of Salvation Farms, shows Governor Peter Shumlin the harvest at the Windsor prison.<br/>(Valley News - Sarah Priestap)
  • Inmate Matt Mabe, of Saxtons River, Vt., helps clean potatoes at the Windsor prison. They are to be donated to local food shelves and shelters.<br/>(Valley News - Sarah Priestap)
  • Matt Mabe dumps a crate of potatoes into a machine for cleaning while being documented by a TV news camera at the Windsor prison.<br/>(Valley News - Sarah Priestap)
  • Surrounded by area news outlets, Mike Place loads pallets of packaged potatoes into a truck headed for distribution to Vermont food shelves and shelters.<br/>(Valley News - Sarah Priestap)

Windsor — Mike Williams has been the center of attention before, with unhappy results. Asked yesterday what landed him in prison at the Southeast State Correctional Facility, the 25-year old Rutland native was frank about his offenses.

“Stealing cars and high-speed pursuits,’’ he said. “And four escapes from work furlough.’’

Midway through yesterday afternoon, however, Williams was in the middle of a different type of commotion. After a press conference to promote a pilot program whereby Southeast State inmates process potatoes destined for needy families, he was dragged into a rowdy photo opportunity by his buddies.

While Susan Bartlett, a special assistant to Vermont Governor Peter Shumlin, held a small camera aloft, Williams was handed a 10-pound sack of spuds by a fellow inmate. Another worker reached over and balanced a potato on his shoulder, one with a protrusion that resembled a nose and on which eyes had been drawn with a marker.

“Everybody say ‘Pardons’ on three!’’ Williams hollered, prompting hoots of laughter in the barn where the processing equipment is located.

The seeds for yesterday’s event were planted three years ago. That’s when Theresa Snow, founder of the Morrisville agricultural surplus management company Salvation Farms, first began touring Vermont corrections facilities with the hope of including them in her eight-year old nonprofit’s mission.

“She’s the visionary who made this whole partnership work,’’ said Bartlett, who in addition to her work with Shumlin, is also the president of Salvation Farms’ board of directors. “The Governor’s office helped with all the logistical details.’’

Chief among them was how the comings and goings of produce trucks might affect a prison’s security. The minimum security facility was selected for the program in part because it has a pool of nonviolent offenders among its population of 100 prisoners. Another important factor was that Southeast State inmates grow, harvest and consume some of their own vegetables. Additionally, Black River Produce, the North Springfield company contracted by Salvation Farms to deliver the potatoes to the Vermont Food Bank and its affiliated, local organizations, is located not far from the prison.

Snow said serious discussions about launching the program began in April and it’s expected that Southeast State will sort, clean and bag roughly 30,000 potatoes during an eight-day span that will end later this week. She added that the venture wouldn’t be financially possible without the free labor provided by the prisoners.

“This is a really big day for me,’’ said Snow, who choked up while she spoke at the press conference. “We waste a lot of food every year in Vermont, but then we spend a lot to feed children, the sick and the hungry.’’

Shumlin, who also spoke briefly at the event, said he’s thought for years that the state’s prisons and its 2,100 inmates have been “under used’’ in terms of free labor for good causes.

“Many of the (prisoners) are here because of drugs and alcohol and other nonviolent offenses,’’ he said. “We can give these folks a sense of purpose, a sense of getting things done for Vermonters. We’re taking people, prisoners and potatoes and putting them together.’’

Inside Southeast State’s one-story barn yesterday, a crew of 10 labored to empty plastic crates of potatoes onto a tilted conveyer belt comprised of rotating, metal tubes. The spinning provided a gentle jostling to knock dirt off the spuds. They were then slid over the top and on to a long table, where they were gathered into 10-pound bags.

Paul Brosseau, the prison’s workforce supervisor, said the facility spent roughly $8,000 to buy the machinery used.

“There was some grumbling about using it at first,’’ he said. “But the work teaches (the inmates) a work ethic and that they have to work together. I think they’ve grown to enjoy this program.’’

Williams said he and his peers work six-hour days at the job, starting in the early morning, and that it’s better than “moving rocks from one pile to another.” Southeast State crews also labor to renovate local buildings, sweep streets, clean trash off highways and paint fire stations, he said.

“This job gives you a sense of purpose,’’ said Williams, who has had several previous stints in prison — totaling about a year — and who estimates he has roughly that much time remaining on his current sentence. “You know you’re helping needy people.

“I don’t think it’s the exact job that matters, it’s the thought that you’re doing something good. For a guy who’s done some bad things in his life, that’s a nice feeling to have every day.’’

Tris Wykes can be reached at twykes@vnews.com of 603-727-3227.