Throughout Rockview state prison property on Wednesday morning, inmates were hard at work.
Some stacked firewood, others watered plants or mowed the grass.
They’re part of the Forestry Camp, a program where a maximum of 72 inmates do various types of outside work — from harvesting wood to gardening.
The camp building is located at the base of Nittany Mountain, across state Route 26 from the main prison facility. The inmates are housed in a facility on that side of the road that’s manned by corrections officers around the clock, but there are no bars on the windows or wire fencing.
The inmates in the program are near the end of their sentences, said Wade Renninger, forestry manager at Rockview.
He manages all the outside work the inmates do.
Being in the program helps inmates get in the daily habit of getting up and going to work, Renninger said, and hopefully gives them the skills and exposure to various types of work to help them get a job when they leave rather than coming back to prison.
“I like the teaching aspect of being able to take a group of inmates and totally isolating how I look at them,” he said. “I typically try not to dig up and really look to see, well, what did they do to get them here. I’m more focused on what they’re trying to do for themselves right now.”
Overall, the institution is about 6,000 acres — 100 of which is Benner state prison land.
There’s about 2,500 acres of forest on institution property, Renninger said, which is managed for wood products — primarily firewood.
He said the firewood is used to heat some buildings on the property, and it’s also sold to the public.
At a small saw mill, the inmates harvest logs and saw them into rough cut lumber that’s used at Rockview and some other local institutions, he said.
In addition, inmates work on a 60-acre nursery, where ornamental and shade trees are grown, Renninger said. It also has greenhouses that produce annual flowers and vegetable plants.
A 2-acre garden supplies everything from broccoli and cauliflower to peppers and eggplant, he said.
“It’s another job that we can take some inmates that never weeded a garden or plowed it up or planted it or took a bag of fertilizer and mixed it; it’s just something to help promote them, to give them meaningful jobs to do,” Renninger said.
And that produce goes to the prison to help supplement what the commonwealth buys, he said. Across the way, there’s a 600-acre farm with 55 head of beef cattle, sweet corn and potatoes.
“We probably won’t be able to become self-sufficient, but the more that we can do to justify the land and the acreage that we have and to show that it’s being utilized and properly maintained, then the more value we have as an institution,” Renninger said.
He also manages Rockview’s Community Work Program, which gets inmates from the Forestry Camp out into the community.
A full-time crew dedicated to off-site work projects averages about 1,000 man hours per month for other state agencies, such as roadside litter clean up for PennDOT or cutting down hazard trees in state parks, Renninger said.
The inmates also do work for nonprofit agencies — from cleaning up Little League fields to mowing the grass at cemeteries before major holidays, he said.
An inmate currently on the Community Work Program crew said it helped him a lot.
Being from the city, he said he never really did this type of work.
It’s meant a lot to him to be in the program, he said, saying that he’s grown a lot.
He said if he can do this in the community here, then he can do it when he gets back out into society.