A group of 17 inmates at the Reception and Medical Center in Lake Butler will be the latest class of certified beekeepers from the center’s Beekeeping Program.
In 2011, the Florida Department of Corrections and the Florida Department of Agriculture created the re-entry program for inmates who were about to be released.
Every Tuesday, the inmates in the program come out to the RMC work camp from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. to get hands-on experience. Completion of the three-month-long program earns inmates a beekeeping certification from the Florida Department of Agriculture.
This program began with one RMC corrections worker.
Don Hicks, an RMC classification supervisor, is the founder of the Beekeeping Program, which was the first of its kind in Florida.
“All of these guys are going to be released,” Hicks said. “They’re going to be your neighbors, and my goal is to prevent further victimization in the future and give these guys skills and job opportunities.”
Beekeeping is a unique opportunity for released inmates.
“Commercial beekeepers do not care about criminal records,” Hicks said. “All they care about is if a person has skills in that area.”
Hicks said people with a criminal background are often barred from jobs. According to a Department of Corrections press release from 2011, inmates who have gained skills needed to find a job are less likely to return to prison and thus increase public safety.
According to the DOC, one out of every four inmates released from a Florida prison will return to prison within three years. Research by the Department of Justice showed inmates who are involved with a correctional education program are 43 percent less likely to return to prison.
According to the DOC release, commercial beekeeper Dave Mendes said he would offer an interview to every inmate who receives certification through the RMC’s program. Although the DOC does not follow up with inmates from the program after release, Hicks said he knows of at least three former inmates who now work as commercial beekeepers.
The program is in high demand among inmates. Hicks said more inmates sign up than can get in.
“If you watch them and look at them, there is a fever that burns inside of them,” he said. “There is something about bees, and once you get it in your blood, it is there forever.”
In just four years, the vocational training program has been implemented at four more institutions in Florida: Jefferson Correctional Institution, Lancaster Correctional Institution, Lowell Reception Center and Big Pine Key Road Prison.
For the last two years, Cecelia and Kenneth Young have been instructors for the program, teaching the inmates everything they need to know about beekeeping. Kenneth Young said the inmates are the best students he’s ever had.
For the Youngs, though, this experience is more than just volunteer work.
“I have started to think of them as my second sons,” Cecelia Young said.