May 28, 2014
Many jails run work programs for inmates, allowing them to earn money and spend time productively. In Allegany County, jail officials are hoping to reduce an inmate’s likelihood of returning by having them raise pheasants.
One of the inmates, Joe, opens the door to a small wooden shed behind the jail. It’s windowless, about the size of a one-car garage. Joe preferred not to give his last name. He’s wearing an orange T-shirt and pants and has a reference to the British band Pink Floyd, along with his son’s name, tattooed on his left arm.
“Right now we’re looking at 597 three-week-old pheasants in the brood house,” says Joe.
He opens a bag of grain and pours it into one of the four feeders. A few dozen pheasants scurry over to the orange bin and start pecking at the grain.
Joe was convicted of burglary and trespassing a couple months ago after his friends turned him in to the police.
“I would steal basically copper wire and return it to the scrap yards and receive cash to support my drug habit that I had at the time.”
Joe says if he hadn’t been put in jail, he probably would’ve overdosed by now. When he got here, he applied to work with the pheasants to spend time outside. Joe and five other inmates have been raising the birds since they were day-old chicks.
“We start the morning, grabbing each water. Take ‘em outside, Mr. Mike starts cleaning up and filling em, I grab each feeder, fill ‘em with the scoops in here.”
Pheasants have been a popular game bird among hunters in western New York for decades. In the 1970s, the population started declining as more efficient grain-farming techniques gathered the seeds that used to be left behind for birds to eat. And new housing developments took over much of the pheasants’ habitat.
The state still wanted to maintain pheasant hunting in the region. So the Department of Environmental Conservation started supplying the jail with chicks in 2008.
Emilio Rende is with the DEC. Rende says the environment can’t go back to supporting pheasants because the county would have to undevelop land or use less efficient farming methods.
“We’ve done study after study and we’re just going to supplement the propagation of these birds for hunting. There’s just been so much change in our landscape and our habitat. And being that the bird is not native to New York and not able to survive. We see the writing on the wall that it’s not going to happen.”
Rende says the group would like to bring in hunters to the county. Unfortunately, the number of hunters in the area has stayed pretty stagnant.
Back at the jail, superintendent Chris Ivers says, even though there’s not been a change in the number of hunters, he’s seeing a change in Joe and the other guys who work with the pheasants.
“If you were to talk to them when they started working with the working program, they were much more heads down, non-interactive. I don’t want to say closed, but certainly not as friendly," says Ivers. "I would hope that you see today that they’re relatively confident.”
Ivers says the inmates who’ve taken care of the pheasants are much less likely to return to jail than ones who don’t.
Ivers recalls one inmate who’d been in and out of jail 22 times. He worked the pheasant program one summer and hasn’t returned since. Ivers says that’s because he started to feel a sense of responsibility for these birds.
“If you have a pet or a dog, and you go home and you hit your dog in the head every day, one day, your dog is going to bite you back and that’s kind of a rough analogy, but if you take someone, take their liberty, put them in a cell for six months and do nothing different than that, how could we possibly expect a different outcome at the end of those six months?”
For Joe, the reason the program has been successful is clear. He’s struck by the fact these 600 lives are dependent on him.
“There was one actually, when we first got the pheasants was having a tough time adapting. It really couldn’t stand, wasn’t eating or drinking. Whether or not that was one of the three that has died, I like to believe it wasn’t," says Joe. "Cause I took the time to feed it water off my finger and I put some food in its mouth. And it seemed to be doing alright. You can’t really tell if it died, but I like to think it survived.”
Joe’s got just over seven months left in his sentence. He says he’s looking forward to getting out and seeing his son again.