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What Caring For Bees Teaches Inmates About Life Beyond Prison

three people in white protective clothing, including hats with screens, working on a hive box with frames. One person is holding a smoking tool. White stacked hive boxes are visible as well as chainlink fencing topped with razor wire in the backgroun

Darrell, Jacob and Clinton are among those incarcerated at Clarinda Correctional Facility in southwest Iowa. They're learning how to be beekeepers. (KATIE PEIKES / HARVEST PUBLIC MEDIA)

On a hot day in July, Darrell, who is serving time at the Clarinda Correctional Facility, pulled a black carrot out of the ground from one of the prison’s three large gardens. He stared at the carrot in amazement and laughed. 

“Wow! Look at that,” Darrell said. “Never in life would I ever think that … I only thought carrots were yellow and orange.”  

This was Darrell’s first time seeing a black carrot. (The prison only allows inmates’ first names to be used.). Darrell and about a dozen others incarcerated at the medium-security prison in southwest Iowa are enrolled in a two-year apprenticeship that teaches them gardening, landscaping and conservation.

The real attraction, though, is beekeeping. 

The prison got its first bees in 2018. The goal of the two-year apprenticeship is to teach inmates skills they can use after they leave prison.

Beehaven Honey

Inside what the prison calls the “bee yard,” Darrell, Clinton and Jacob donned baggy white protective suits with mesh beekeepers’ hats to protect their faces from a half-million bees. 

They pumped smoke into the air to calm them. 

“So we just kind of smoke them down a little bit to kind of get them off of the frame,” Darrell said.  

They lifted frames out of the white beehives, kind of like pulling files out of a filing cabinet, to make sure the queen bee was healthy. But on some of the honeycomb-filled frames, they saw their tasty reward. 

“That’s all honey,” Jacob said.  

They’ll likely harvest the honey in August and bottle it under the label “Beehaven Honey.” The prison will keep some of it and give some away to local food pantries. 

Life skills

Randy Gibbs, who was then the assistant deputy director at the prison, met with an Iowa beekeeper, who gave him the idea to start the program. Gibbs researched and found another prison with a beekeeping program. Clarinda Correctional Facility started a class in 2017 and set up its first hives in 2018.

“It was something that could help provide someone with a hobby and a skill they could end up turning around and making some money at,” Gibbs said, “and at the same time, providing nature with something usable like bees.”

Correctional Officer Gerald Nelson, who teaches beekeeping at Clarinda, said many guys are nervous about getting near the bees when they first start. But they learn how to be calm and how to work together.

“One of the first things I did when we first started is take the guys down, ‘Okay, now reach down and grab a bee and pick it up and not hurt it,’” Nelson said. 

gloved hands holding a frame from a honey bee hive.
The men incarcerated at Clarinda Correctional Facility will likely harvest the honey in August. The prison keeps some of it and gives some away to local food pantries. (KATIE PEIKES / HARVEST PUBLIC MEDIA)

But the program has benefits beyond the prison walls. 

“From the nature point of view, we need bees to live, to pollinate,” Gibbs said. “We had the access and the workforce to do it, so why not start it up?” 

Bees are also important for agriculture. Iowa State University bee extension specialist Randall Cass said when bees visit flowers to collect nectar and pollen, the pollen that gets stuck on their hairs is spread from flower to flower as they travel. That pollen helps plants produce fruit.

“If we were to lose all the bees one day, some plants would still be able to produce, but they wouldn’t be able to have the high yields that we’re seeing now without the help of insect pollinators like bees,” Cass said.

Mt. Pleasant Correctional Facility, more than 200 miles away in southeast Iowa, is the only other prison in the state that does beekeeping. Prisons in Missouri and Washington also offer beekeeping programs.

A calming experience

Besides learning a new trade, people in prison take away some psychological benefits, like responsibility, accountability and problem solving. 

The three beekeepers said working with bees calmed them.

“When I work around them, I kind of forget that I’m in prison,” Jacob said. “It’s just a real calming experience to have something like that to do in here and kind of get your mind off things and learn about new things.” 

Clinton said he’s learned a few things about responsibility.

“By learning to be responsible for the bees, then you also learn to be more responsible for yourself, for your actions,” Clinton said. “[It] gives you a purpose in life, because when I get out, I fully intend to have bees. I fully do. I really enjoy it.” 

Newt Wright was in prison when the beekeeping program began. The prison mailed him a beekeeping suit after he was released – something they offer for others enrolled in the program. Now, he has a hive at his family farm about an hour northwest of Clarinda. 

Wright says it’s like having 50,000 pets to care for.

“These little guys count on me to make sure that I keep them healthy,” Wright said. “And if they have mites or something, I need to get them treated with some medicine.”

Wright said beekeeping taught him how to work well with others.

“It gave us something to get out there and do together to kind of build some relationships with some of the other guys down there that were trying to do better,” Wright said.

Creating empathy

There’s research that prison animal programs help reduce fights, antisocial behaviors and the chances of returning to prison. Philip Tedeschi, a clinical professor at the University of Denver’s graduate school of social work, has studied this. 

“One of the things we learned is it not only changes our perspective of what’s possible in the world around us, but it changes our interpersonal neurobiology,” Tedeschi said. “Interacting with other animals also allows us to feel better. It allows us to feel safer and that changes our neurochemistry.”  

close up view across the top of a hive box full of frames. A few bees are on top of the frames.
The beekeeping program teaches inmates things like responsibility, accountability and problem solving. University of Denver's Philip Tedeschi says prison animal programs put a person's empathy to work. (KATIE PEIKES / HARVEST PUBLIC MEDIA)

Tedeschi said animal programs put a person’s empathy to work.

“And empathy is also closely connected to the commission of crime, particularly violent crime, in that when somebody has stronger capacity for empathy, they're less likely to engage in harmful behaviors towards others,” Tedeschi said.

Tedeschi has primarily studied programs where inmates work and live with dogs, but he said there is a parallel to bees. In both, inmates learn to care for animals. And that can change their experience in prison and life for the better.

Follow Katie on Twitter: @katiepeikes

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