Beyond a ‘feel-good’ program: prison beekeeping offers hope for inmates

“This goes beyond just a feel-good program — we taught students how to read so they could participate,” said Jennifer Berry, a doctoral student and research professional in UGA’s Department of Entomology. “It clicks in their minds that they can learn — beekeeping allows them to learn.”

“I was one of those teens – I wanted to be an actress. I went to college for theater but dropped out and went on drugs.”

This is the story of certified beekeeper Joy Ishi (Cornett) Smith. Or it was for a while.

After she dropped out of college, Smith’s life continued on a downward spiral, one that she tried to stop by having children.

“I thought getting older would make me better. That didn’t work for me,” she said. “It’s not that they weren’t important, but addiction had a stronger hold on my mind than I thought. No matter how much I broke away, I couldn’t stay away and it brought me in jail.”

While incarcerated at Arrendale State Prison in Habersham County, Georgia, Smith was involved in a Strategic Intervention Program, or SIP, which she describes as a repeat offender boot camp. When she was marching, she saw the beehives for the first time.

The beehives, separated from the outside world by 14 closed doors, are part of the Georgia Prison Beekeeping Program.

UGA Honey Bee Lab Offers Beekeeping Certification

According to a history produced by the Honey Bee Program at the University of Georgia, the Georgia Prison Beekeeping Program at Smith State Prison in Tattnall County began in 2012 when a prison inmate, Roy Nichols, began talking to other inmates about the bees he used to be. loved. he was imprisoned. The memories became planning, and despite running into numerous roadblocks, first grade in Georgia started with a single beehive. It was enough for some of the early program participants to see the opportunity – both to learn and to expand.

The first residents involved in the class received a prison certificate of attendance, but no official acknowledgment of their time and effort. A series of phone calls and meetings ensued, involving the then director of Smith State, an agent of UGA Cooperative Extension, a retired Georgia public school superintendent, and Bear Kelley, then vice president of the Ogeechee Beekeepers Association.

Jennifer Berry uses a bee smoker to calm honeybees in the UGA Apiary.
Jennifer Berry uses a bee smoker to calm honeybees in the UGA Apiary.

Kelley agreed with the need for more formal certification and his first call was to Jennifer Berry, apiculture research professional and laboratory manager for the College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences’ UGA Honey Bee program.

Berry and Kelley quickly got to work on the details of a Smith State certification program. Once the first class was certified, there was an immediate waiting list for the program.

Since the start of the program, more than 150 beekeepers have been certified, including some at master beekeeper level.

“This goes beyond just a feel-good program — we taught students how to read so they could participate,” Berry said. “It clicks in their minds that they can learn — beekeeping allows them to learn.”

Fall in love with bees

In Arrendale’s garden, Smith found herself picking and eating dandelion greens to prevent disease. Though her little outdoor access was surrounded by barbed wire, in nature it was intrinsic to her quality of life, something that was not lost on the director of programs at the prison.

Smith was introduced to Julia Mahood, master beekeeper, volunteer beekeeping instructor in Arrendale, and president of the Georgia Beekeepers Association prison committee. With the help of Mahood and master beekeeper and program volunteer Virginia Webb, Smith realized her true passion for nature, the outdoors and the honeybee.

“The first time I went to the hives and put on a bee suit, they were everywhere. Ping out of my suit. That’s when I fell in love with bees. I cried,” Smith said. “These little things affect everything out there. They make things bloom by pollinating them. There is so much they can do. I realized at that moment how small I was in the universe. All those things I did before were totally irrelevant to what I could do in the future. I got very serious about beekeeping. I had plans.”

Rehabilitation through the beehive

Mahood, who had just completed her sixth year of teaching at Arrendale, said that while it’s easy to volunteer for the crime and sentencing program, she quickly realized that the students around her hives were just women, many of whom no means to make good choices.

“If you’re in my class, you’re a beekeeper. You are not a prisoner or a perpetrator. I’m a beekeeper, you’re a beekeeper, and we learn from each other,” Mahood said. “These women are the most grateful people I have ever worked with. They are extremely grateful to connect with nature, to be outside and to learn something. Volunteering in a prison is so enlightening and rewarding – it’s the most rewarding work I’ve done.”

Amy W., the current Arrendale resident and assistant to the GED program teacher, waited until the program had spent two or three years in prison before signing up for a presentation. She started the program in January 2019 as a way to occupy her mind without losing her detail (job), and she is now working towards her master beekeeper certification.

“Beekeeping gives me direction to focus and prevents me from dwelling on my current situation, where I am away from my family and friends and cut off from society,” she said. “With the COVID restrictions in place, I haven’t seen my family in two years. It could easily have been a very dark time and beekeeping has helped divert my attention there.”

Beehives painted by residents of Arrendale Prison
Residents of Arrendale State Prison have painted and decorated several bee boxes that can now be found in the UGA Honey Bee Lab.

She said beekeeping has been a bright spot that shines in the dark, not only keeping depression at bay, but also giving her ideas for careers and hobbies when she’s released.

Berry and Mahood agree that rehabilitation through programs that allow inmates to envision life after release is a lofty but achievable goal.

“My general hope would be that this program could be a catalyst for more similar programs,” Berry said. “It is our duty as citizens to prepare residents for a successful life outside of prison.”

Expanding the Georgia Prison Beekeeping Program

According to Heather Lea Corbett, director of careers, technical, and higher education at the Georgia Department of Corrections, the Georgia Prison Beekeeping Program runs in eight state prisons. With additional facilities showing interest in establishing new programs, the possibility of expansion is being explored.

“We are also eager to expand relationships with potential employers, contractors and organizations such as Georgia Grown who could help returning citizens use their beekeeping skills and knowledge upon release,” Corbett said. “We also want to continue to encourage offenders in beekeeping programs to earn stackable credentials in related programs such as horticulture, carpentry and entrepreneurship.”

In the meantime, Berry said the program is rebuilding from the effects of COVID-19, including inventorying hives and reorganizing volunteers coming from Georgia’s 48 local beekeeping clubs. Ten students have already been certified this year, with many more waiting in the wings for the next round of testing. She is also working with the Georgia Department of Corrections on a memorandum of understanding to increase the legitimacy of the program and prevent individual guards from disbanding it.

“We’ve seen situations where momentum builds and then grinds to a halt as guards change hands and the new guard has different priorities,” Berry said. “When the director is on board, it’s great. But if they change, the whole program can change.”

‘It gives us hope… that we can be different’

Despite many setbacks – COVID-related and beyond – Smith became a certified beekeeper in 2020, the same year she was released from Arrendale.

“This is the first time I’ve come out and stayed outside; I attribute that entirely to becoming a beekeeper,” Smith said. “I’m thinking about preserving my life and not giving it up.”

Beehives painted by residents of Arrendale Prison
“This is the first time I’ve come out and stayed outside; I attribute that entirely to the fact that I became a beekeeper,” said Joy Ishi Smith, who participated in the beekeeping program while incarcerated. “I’m thinking about preserving my life and not giving it up.”

After her release, Smith went to work for a man who sells bees and bee supplies. There she learned how to build and assemble beehives and frames for sale, and how bees are shipped across the country. She said it was a great adventure because of the complexity of the process.

“Some may find it annoying, but if you have bees, if you use bees to pollinate your garden, your product has changed — it has improved,” Smith said. “I see the difference, even in the supermarket, in the way things ripen, in the quality of products. The bees don’t waste anything. They use everything in their environment for the good of the hive. That made me want to be more of a team player than a solo act.”

Although her first personal colony of bees fled that job — and suddenly left the hive in search of another — Smith said it was a good learning experience.

Now, with donated supplies in hand, she plans to install beehives on the properties of community members and organizations who have asked her to install and maintain them until she can buy her own land. Her goal this year, in addition to working on her journeyman beekeeper certification, is to install and maintain four beehives.

Smith said the Georgia Prison Beekeeping Program taught her that people never fail, they learn.

“If we can understand that, we have hope. It gives us hope … that we can be different,” she said. “I can do anything. I can breed bees, I can make money and I can support myself without doing anything illegal.”

“There is so much information to learn. I have dreams and ambitions to do bee research to further the information we have. The world needs more people like that — to care, who want to help others,” she said. “I’ve always wanted to help, but never had any idea how I would do it. But if you can see the hive and If you can learn from it, you can help others find solutions.”

For more information about the UGA Honey Bee program, visit bees.caes.uga.edu.

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