The Beginning

Full Story: "One day these inmates may be your neighbor, and it is important to give them the training necessary to make it on the outside so they will not only be good neighbors but stay our neighbors.”

Beekeeping behind bars all started within the concrete walls of Smith State prison in 2012 when an inmate, Roy Nichols, started talking with other inmates about the bees he used to keep on the outside. As he reminisced about his beekeeping days, he began to pique the interest of his peers. Eventually, the discussions turned into the idea of starting a beekeeping program at the prison. One day, as Warden Stanley Williams was making his routine rounds through the dormitory, Roy took it upon himself to ask the Warden if beekeeping behind bars would be possible.

In minimum and medium security facilities, inmates are allowed to carry out work details outside of the prison. Smith State Prison, however, is rated as a closed (maximum) security prison. Its inmates are not allowed to venture outside the walls because of the types of crimes that they have committed. However, Warden Williams realized that there needed to be something for these folks to do; there needed to be programs to prepare those who, when released, have a chance for a life on the outside. The idea is that the better prepared they are with skills and trades, the less likely they will end up back in prison.

Unfortunately, Roy’s first presentation of his idea, fell on deaf ears. Warden Williams didn’t see an opportunity for beekeeping at Smith State Prison. But Roy was persistent. He approached the Warden once more; this time, he was prepared with evidence in hand. Roy had an article about how the Florida Agricultural Department was involved in beekeeping in several state correctional facilities through an inmate re-entry program. It described how not only was the program helping the inmates learn a skill, but it was also generating income for the state! In an interview, Dennis Baxley, honorable member of the Florida House of Representatives, said that through programs like this, it may be possible to cut recidivism (relapse back to criminal behavior) by 33%, which could save the state a billion dollars. It was a huge endorsement, not only for the benefit of the state, but equally important for the individuals turning their lives around!

After Warden Williams read the article, he realized this was exactly the type of program they should introduce into the Georgia prison system. So, he went back to Roy and gave him a job. He charged Roy with the responsibility to develop a curriculum along with a list of required materials. First, Roy put together a list of minimum requirements needed to keep bees. Next, he went to work on putting together a lesson plan, borrowing from several sources including his own experience as well as an old copy of Backyard Beekeeping, by Kim Flottum. Once the Warden received and priced the material list, he quickly realized that this wasn’t going to be cheap; yet, it offered a high return for the inmates. Not only do vocational programs help keep inmates active and engaged inside the walls, but they help develop important skills to secure and retain a job when they’re released. Programs like these also can help inmates obtain parole through the demonstration of their reformed behavior and resolve.

As you can imagine, it’s challenging to find employment after you’ve served a sentence. So, learning trades in industries that tend to be more forgiving toward one with a record is exactly what was needed. Warden Williams not only saw the potential of a beekeeping program for his prison, but he also saw the importance of serving as a role model to other Georgia correctional facilities. Another person instrumental in getting the beekeeping program up and running was Wayne Johnson, then Deputy Warden of Care and Treatment. His job was to oversee the daily operation of medical, mental health, education, and counseling services for the Smith State Prison population. Both he and Warden Williams liked the idea of having a “hands-on” program at the prison. And, as a result, they gave Roy Nichols the job of class instructor.

After Warden Williams secured the funds and ordered the equipment and bees needed for the class, Deputy Warden Johnson oversaw their receipt and installation, as well as
supervised the classroom activities. The class began with only one hive, but that’s all the students needed to “figuratively fly” over those walls and into a whole new world of adventure and opportunity. Since then, Warden Angie Henry was appointed as the new Deputy Warden of Care and Treatment at Smith State. Even though she’s only been there for a short time, she came to the post with over 30 years of experience in the Department of Corrections. She’s also no stranger to agriculture; she and her husband run their own private vegetable farm.

Once she got wind of the beekeeping program, she immediately thought to contact Stephan Price, a long-time friend of the family and Extension Agent for Bulloch County, for assistance. She not only wanted to continue the program, but also wanted to improve it. The first students who completed the classes only received a prison certificate of participation, but nothing official. So, she decided to pursue a true certification process to give their program legitimacy. Like the Wardens before her, she realized the importance of credentials in the inmates’ vocational records. As she told me, “One day these inmates may be your neighbor, and it is important to give them the training necessary to make it on the outside so they will not only be good neighbors but stay our neighbors.”

Another person who was actively involved in this whole process was Mr. Lenwood Roberts. Since his arrival at the prison, he took on several teaching programs, which came easy to him being a retired Superintendent of Public Schools in Georgia. Mr. Roberts taught agricultural classes, and then before his retirement, oversaw the beekeeping class. With a request for a certification process in hand from Deputy Warden Henry, Mr. Price called the Ogeechee Beekeepers Association for some help. Rhett Kelley, then Vice President of the Association, took an immediate interest in the prison program. Rhett was an Emergency Medical Technician (EMT), a beekeeper, farmer, husband, and father of five. He also runs a company that makes and sells handcrafted bull whips. As an EMT, Rhett’s already had some experience dealing with the internal workings of a prison. So, he decided to meet with the prison administration and inmates involved. After his first visit to Smith State, Rhett was convinced that this program needed a certification component. So, he contacted Bear Kelley to find out more about possible applicability of the University of Georgia’s Master Beekeeper Program (see below) to the Smith State Prison situation.

Bear Kelley, before moving to Florida, was a beekeeping mover and shaker in the state of Georgia. Plus, over the past several years, he did wonders for the Georgia Beekeepers Association. He was the perfect person for Rhett to involve because he shared an eagerness to work with the prison. After meeting with the prison beekeeping group and seeing for himself how dedicated they were, he was even more excited to help. He agreed with the certification direction for the program, and contacted Jennifer Berry, Research Professional and Lab Manager for the UGA Honey Bee Program (see below for details on the Georgia Master Beekeeping Program).

Once Jennifer and Bear worked out the finer points of certifying the students at Smith, it was all hands-on deck. Yet, certifying students at the Young Harris Beekeeping Institute or other local beekeeping associations is completely different than certifying a group of inmates behind bars. Most of us will never set foot inside an area barricaded with razor wire, high concrete walls and bullet-proof glass. At least, we hope not! But this didn’t deter the crew one bit. Once the crew from the UGA Honey Bee Lab, along with Bear, Broadus Williams and Rhett Kelley cleared security, they were introduced to the 15 students who were very attentive and eager to learn all they could about beekeeping. After a lengthy Q&A, the crew was escorted through numerous locked, steel doors and gates, pausing at each junction to pose for the cameras and wait to be buzzed through. After traversing a long green courtyard with tall gray walls, they finally entered the fenced off apiary. There were four humble beehives that showed a good bit of wear and tear. Rocks were used as makeshift entrance reducers and plastic bottles as entrance feeders. As the students arrived, they talked about how one particular colony had swarmed and another was currently queenless. They proudly indicated their strongest hive, and, by their awareness and enthusiasm, it was obvious they knew a great deal about beekeeping and really cared about the bees and this program. While standing inside the fenced apiary and listening to the students, it became obvious the importance of this program.

Several months later, the UGA Bee Lab Crew headed south to administer the Georgia Master Beekeeping exam. They met up with Rhett Kelley along with Mr. Roberts, who both had decided to take the exam alongside the inmates. As the written exams were being passed out, one student blurted out how nervous he was, and everyone else nodded their heads in solidarity.

The first exam was turned in and graded and only two questions had been missed; that’s a score of 96% (A+). After 45 minutes, all the students had completed the written portion of the exam and they had all passed. Now, it was on to the practical exam. Each of the UGA staff took one candidate after another through the practical. They progressed through both parts in short order. Once the last candidate had completed the outside portion, exams were graded and scores tallied. Every student had passed with flying colors with the lowest grade being an 85%. They really blew the top off the exam. It was a 100% pass rate, which was the highest of any test administration to date.

After this experience, it was obvious that this program needed more assistance. Shane Gebauer, at Brushy Mountain Bee Farm was contacted and given a list of equipment needs. A few weeks later, Brushy Mountain donated over $2,000 worth of equipment to Smith State. What an amazingly generous gift.

Since this first experience at Smith State, so much has happened. To date, 2019, the program has expanded into eight prisons with over 100 participating and certified inmates. And it keeps getting better. Five of the inmates at Arrendale (read Letters from behind bars) have gone on to become Journeyman beekeepers. There are also several others at other prisons going for Journeyman next year.
The goal of this program is still to continue educating inmates in the art of beekeeping; but it goes much further than that. Aside from general beekeeping skills, students have acquired other skills as well, from learning how to read to take an exam, to woodworking, welding and writing. The women beekeepers at Arrendale are editors of a newsletter which raises awareness on the importance of bees and pollinators. They have also learned how to make hive products and compete with other prisons in the GBA prison honey show. Since becoming certified, several have gone on to complete their GEDs. Many have expressed tokens of self-satisfaction like “I never thought I could pass a University of Georgia exam,” and virtually all have expressed optimism that “I now know I can accomplish anything I put my mind to.” Prison officials from Michigan, Arkansas and Arizona have contacted GBA officers for guidance on introducing similar programs in their states.

It is amazing how these little, industrious insects can enter our lives, re-shape our world, and help out in so many different ways. Here’s just one more example of how these creatures can lift our spirits and carry us to places we never thought we would go.

**A quick short about the Georgia Master Beekeeper Program. It offers four levels of achievement recognition: Certified, Journeyman, Master and Master Craftsman Beekeeper designations. The Certified Beekeeper exam consists of two sections, on each of which, a score of 70% or better is required to pass. The first is a challenging written exam covering an introductory level knowledge of honey bees and beekeeping. The second is a practical exam, which is subdivided into two parts. The first part of the practical section requires a demonstration of beekeeping skills in the apiary; it includes lighting a smoker and properly working a beehive. The candidate is expected to approach, open, manipulate, and close a hive using sound apiary etiquette, as well as identify key constituents and structures within. The second part of the practical section can be held indoors or outside; it is an identification exercise to demonstrate a knowledge of beekeeping tools and equipment, as well as an ability to diagnose important colony disorders.