If you’ve eaten buffalo mozzarella in the United States, chances are good that the milk came from the nation’s largest water buffalo dairy, located in Colorado – and operated by inmates.
It’s just one of the dozens of agricultural industries successfully launched by Colorado Correctional Industries, or CCI, established by statute in 1977. CCI receives no taxpayer support. It is self-funded through enterprises ranging from training wild Mustangs to making custom fly-fishing rods to growing grapes to sell to winemakers.
CCI Director Dennis Dunsmoor says the many industries teach offenders real-world skills that they can use when they are released back into society.
“One of the best aspects of CCI is that we provide a future for a lot of these people when they leave here,” Dunsmoor says.
He received an email last year from an offender who left CCI six years ago. The man is now living in Florida and working as a machinist making nearly $30 per hour – a skill he learned working on tractors in the CCI repair shop. He also said he’s raising goats, a skill he learned at CCI.
The former inmate confessed to Dunsmoor that at one point in his life he was a “knucklehead,” but at CCI he learned to tool and die. Dunsmoor grew up in a manufacturing environment and says the offender was one of the best he ever trained. “Now he’s turned into a productive person earning a good living and enjoying his life,” Dunsmoor says. “It feels good to open doors for someone willing to work hard.”
CCI has proven to reduce the cost of offender housing, recidivism and incidents of problems within the prison population. The national average for recidivism, or return to prison, is about 60 percent, compared to the CCI rate of 25 percent. Out of the 14,000 offenders in the state system, about 2,000 of those work within the CCI program.
The products produced and grown through CCI provide food for the prison and generate revenues from surplus crops sold to outside markets.
The prison has three kinds of dairies: goat, cow and water buffalo. Dunsmoor says the water buffalo dairy has been one of the most interesting projects. In order to develop quality milking stock, a breeding program relying on AI has been initiated.
“It takes time to develop the animals that can produce quality milk, but it’s going to be worth it,” he says. “Right now it’s a little difficult to make a lot of money on the water buffalo milk, but we’re taking the long view. We’re developing good milking stock, with animals producing 40 pounds of milk a day.”
One of the advantages of the CCI agricultural program is the ability to be flexible.
The goat dairy is a good example of the advantage of flexibility. “We started out trying to make cheese, but it didn’t take long for us to figure out that wasn’t working. Now, we sell the milk to the professionals and let them make the cheese. Goat milk produced at our dairy has gone into cheeses that have won awards around the world.”
The milk produced in the Holstein dairy is processed for use within CCI and the entire Colorado prison system.
All of the silage fed to the livestock at CCI is raised by the offenders. In terms of aquaculture, CCI farms trout and tilapia. The farm is experimenting with producing catfish, yellow bass and striped bass.
Other programs involve working with animals in a different way, like dog training.
“We always like it when we see one of these big guys who has never taken care of anything, take on a dog to care for and train and be successful at that,” Dunsmoor says.
As he approaches his own retirement, Dunsmoor reflects on the vision of the legislators who adopted the statute that created CCI. “They were innovative thinkers,” he says. “They created a self-funding program that does good work on several levels, and helps people.”
He says hard work is important to rehabilitation. “People who work hard during the day feel good about what they accomplished. If we miss that in the prison system, we’ll miss that in life. It’s important for everyone.”