Incarcerated Vermonters help save treasured buildings
Written onDecember 08 , 2012
Barns, of course, are a staple in Vermont agriculture, providing a place to house livestock, store hay and grain, and keep farm vehicles and equipment. Unfortunately, though, their upkeep can be dauntingly expensive and time consuming, especially with cows to milk and food to produce.
Joe and Sylvia Maille of Shelburne have been farming for as long as they can remember. Joe’s parents purchased the dairy operation in 1919 and now Joe and his son Jim have further developed the original operation. The Maille family milks around 50 cows today and sells their milk to Dairy Farmers of America, a dairy marketing cooperative.
Until late October, one of the Maille’s barns was in rough shape. Built in 1939, its interior sills and exterior siding had become rotten, it needed jacking up, and the silo called for a complete restoration.
“Honestly, I thought this barn was going to be something we would never be able to completely restore,” Jim told me. “The price of milk just keeps dropping while the price of fuel and labor continues to go up. When I first got the phone call I thought—c’mon, nobody seriously offers to paint your barn for free.”
The phone call was from the Vermont Barn Painting Project, which provides farmers with free labor and maintenance. The project’s rehabilitation work focuses on deteriorating barns and is performed by inmates in Vermont correctional facilities. For the Mailles, the restoration was performed in October by a work crew of women from the Chittenden Regional Correctional Facility.
When I asked about the progression of the project, Jim said, “They’re only on their second week here, but it looks great. They never stop.”
The pilot project is a partnership between the Vermont Agriculture Agency, the Vermont Corrections Department, the Preservation Trust of Vermont, the Vermont Division for Historic Preservation, the State of Vermont Chief Marketing Officer, and Vermont Works for Women. Allen Lumber, Sherwin-Williams and Pizzagalli Properties provide donations and necessary funds.
This cluster of state agencies, non-profits, and private businesses constitute a unique collaboration. It meets the Agency of Agriculture’s mission to directly enhance landscapes for the growth and viability of local agriculture. And through the support of Vermont Works for Women, it assists women seeking purpose and a sense of accomplishment. It allows inmates to work as a team in a beautiful outdoor setting, provides them with useful vocational skills, and prepares them to enter the work force after the completion of their sentence.
Upon my arrival at Maille Farm, I met Rachel Jolly, the director of programs at Vermont Works for Women (VWW). Rachel spoke of the extensive history that VWW has in making huge strides among women and girls. “We’ve done numerous carpentry training programs with incarcerated women, but nothing to this caliber—nothing that has them this engaged.”
I had arrived at 11 am, 30 minutes before the crew took a lunch break. In that half hour, I observed six women—all non-violent offenders—smoothly applying new coats of paint on the milk parlor door and removing siding from the top of the barn with the help of a gigantic boom, all while talking, smiling, and laughing.
Amanda Griggs was there, too. An organic farmer, potter, woodworker, and yoga teacher by trade and passion, Amanda was hired by VWW as the onsite safety and carpentry instructor for the Maille Farm project. “I love this role,” she told me. “It’s an opportunity and, of course, a challenge, but so rewarding. I get to see women do things they never thought they’d do.”
Amanda begins each morning with a basic carpentry lesson and leads the women in a short yoga class. Then they write down goals for the day, making sure to cross off each task as they finish.
“My favorite part is seeing how truly unselfish these women are,” said Amanda. “At the beginning of this project, I had the women write down their goals, and each and every person wrote servicing farmers, supporting agriculture, and helping others. They are truly happy to have an outlet for giving back to the community.”
To my surprise, many of the women, who chose to remain nameless for this article, were more than willing to talk to me—excited, even, at the thought of a new face and fresh perspective.
Asked about what it was like working on the project, one of the women commented, “Your days go by faster, you leave tired, and you get to be outside. It’s also great to be able to help someone, especially a farmer, and in this current, weakened economy.”
Some women spoke of the joy of using a skill saw or a hammer, others of how they overcame their fear of heights by going up in the boom lift.
The women on the crew were all from a housing unit of non-violent offenders at the correctional facility called the Delta Unit. They were interviewed and chosen to join the crew based on their hopes and vision for the project as well as their experience.
As for the Maille’s Shelburne barn, it was not the first to be restored through this project. Earlier this summer, the Gingue Farm in Waterford received a facelift thanks to an all-male work crew from the Northeast Regional Correctional Facility in St. Johnsbury. And almost three years ago, the Molly Brook Farm of Danville was restored.
The farms that participate in the program are chosen for their geographic location. They must be close to the correctional facility where the workers would come from, but also near a highly traveled area, so that visitors and Vermonters alike can relish in a beautiful, restored agricultural landscape.
As a writer, I usually leave an interview with quotes and scenes swimming through my head. I wonder how I can capture a certain idea, what will my catchy headline be—the list goes on.
But on this particular drive home, it was only the sound of laughter that echoed in my head. It was then that I began to realize just how much I have in common with these women from the Chittenden Regional Correctional Facility. Their mid-work smiles and laughter sent me back to the summers I spent on farms—the working landscapes where I have felt the most in my element, the best, most true, version of myself.
Working on these farms provided me relief from the fast-paced college lifestyle I was so desperate to get away from. I imagine a similar relief was felt by the women at Maille Farm—serving their time in the open air, rather than behind bars. Whether it’s a freshly painted barn door or a bountiful harvest of beaming orange carrots, that incredible feeling of pride and accomplishment is the same.