Beekeeping Gives Prisoners a Sweeter Future

A growing number of inmates are reaping the therapeutic benefits of working with bees.
(Photo: Adrees Latif/Reuters)
Aug 14, 2015· 3 MIN READ
Rebecca McCray is a staff writer covering social justice. She is based in New York.

At 44, Johnny Patterson had never had a real job. In and out of juvenile facilities and prison in Illinois since the age of 15, Patterson had made money outside those stints of incarceration, but he hadn’t made it legally. Sure, he had tried to find work, but his felony record made it impossible.

“Soon as you check the box that you’re a convicted felon, they look right over you—you don’t even get an interview,” Patterson told TakePart. “I was like, ‘Well, I got to survive, so it’s back to the streets.’ ”

When he got out of prison this year, he was determined not to go back in. Though his most recent conviction was for selling drugs, a 30-year-old conviction for armed robbery on his record made him ineligible for employment programs that excluded violent offenders. That’s when his father in-law told him about a program on the West Side of Chicago, where Patterson grew up. The North Lawndale Employment Network accepted Patterson into its job-training program, and in April he landed a transitional position with a company called Sweet Beginnings, which makes honey-based natural skin care products. That’s where Patterson learned a skill he had never considered: beekeeping.

“I got a chance to see how bees produce honey,” Patterson said. “I actually fell in love with these little creatures. I’m going to hang around because I want to learn more about them.”

Bees and criminal offenders might seem like an odd combination, but they are becoming increasingly common counterparts. While Patterson learned the practice after his release from prison, a growing number of states have jails and prisons that host beekeeping programs for inmates. Counties in Texas, Florida, Oregon, Washington, and Maryland all boast such classes behind bars.

“Our bees help people because we help them,” Walter Schumacher, the founder of Central Texas Bee Rescue and umbrella organization the American Honey Bee Protection Agency, told TakePart. Schumacher and his colleagues see themselves as defenders of wild honeybees, offering community members with an unwanted bee population an alternative to extermination. They specialize in safely removing honeybees and relocating them to Schumacher’s bee sanctuary or to properties that want to revitalize their plant life.

Public education is also an important component of Schumacher’s work—in schools, community colleges, and now the local jail. Last year, Schumacher started a beekeeping program for men and women at the Travis County Correctional Complex in Austin, Texas. “Through helping these sometimes mean and nasty little critters, somehow they can see the light at the end of the tunnel,” he said.

Schumacher invites inmates who complete his 1,200-hour certification program at the correctional complex to work for him after their release. He pays them $25 to $50 an hour for the specialized skill they learned behind bars and even invites them to stay in a trailer or pitch a tent on his 20 acres of land if need be, as long as they work hard and don’t do drugs. The program has been so successful that correctional facilities in 20 Texas counties are now consulting with Schumacher to start beekeeping programs, as is one in Broomfield County, Colorado.

The odds have been stacked against bees in recent years, thanks to pesticides, parasites, and disease. These industrious creatures are responsible for pollinating a third of the world’s crops and play an integral role in the production of plants that make up one-third of the U.S. diet. That’s why people like Schumacher are so invested in their preservation.

Schumacher knows firsthand how cathartic working with bees can be. Nine years ago he owned his own restaurant, where he worked as a chef. “I drank a lot and was very aggressive,” Schumacher told TakePart. Though he never wound up in jail, he believes he understands some of the stresses the inmates he works with are going through. A friend brought him along on a hive-removal outing one day, and Schumacher was sold. He quit the restaurant business and started working with bees full time.

“When I started working with bees, I said, ‘Wow, this is crazy—I love this,’ ” Schumacher said. “I quit drinking. I didn’t want to hurt people anymore.”

Schumacher also employs veterans who suffer from PTSD; he says two of the vets who work with him find working with bees therapeutic and say it helps their mind-set too. “Instead of seeing the world as a nasty place where they killed people, they see a future,” Schumacher said.

A former speed cook whom Schumacher trained while he was in jail has also joined his team. When he got out, he committed to driving 75 miles every day just to get to Schumacher’s beekeeping compound and work.

“He could make $50,000 a weekend cooking dope, but instead he makes a trek to work with those bees,” Schumacher said. “People that really needed help found honeybees. And the honeybees said, ‘Come on in.’ ”