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Bees back in business of pollinating TDCJ unit gardens

Busy bees make much more than honey. They also make honeydew melons, squash, apples, pears, and a swarm of other fruits and vegetables. They do it through pollination.

Jesse Oates pulling out a beehive
CID Region I Offender Disciplinary Specialist Jesse Oates inspects a beehive at the Ellis Unit near Huntsville.
Photos by David Nunnelee
TDCJ, in fact, once raised bees to help pollinate its field crops, but stopped keeping hives decades ago. But now the bees are back, this time brought in primarily to pollinate the fruits and vegetables grown in prison unit gardens managed by the agency’s Agribusiness, Land & Mineral (ALM) Department across the state. Two captured swarms of honey bees, including one found under a prison recreation yard table, were relocated to the Ellis Unit outside of Huntsville this past summer as a start to the bee reintroduction project. Two other colonies were later purchased and placed at the Hobby Unit near Marlin. By spring, Ellis, Hobby, and a dozen other prison units with ALM-managed gardens are each expected to have at least 10 bee colonies lodged in square wooden boxes called “supers.”

“This is a pilot project,” said Ellis Farm Manager Mike Neeley. “We’ll start with ten and build from that.”

Bees were brought back to TDCJ with the help of Jesse Oates, a beekeeper who works as a program specialist responsible for all aspects of offender disciplinary within Region I for the Correctional Institutions Division. He has raised bees off and on since he was 14 and now keeps a number of hives at his farm near Onalaska, where they help pollinate his large garden and fruit trees.

“Most of my neighbors with fruit trees love my bees because they have been getting their best crops in years,” Oates said. “All I can do is attribute that to the bees because we sure haven’t had the extra moisture.”

Oates said loss of habitat has contributed to a decline in native bee populations in East Texas, and that keeping farm-raised colonies is a good way to ensure that gardens are properly pollinated. TDCJ Entomologist Steve Ball said that with sufficient moisture, using bees normally results in a 20 percent increase in pollination. That could add to the 15 million pounds of produce harvested from ALM-managed gardens covering 4,000 acres around the state last year.

Jesse Oates pulling out a beehive while Neeley looks on
Farm Manager Mike Neeley, left, and Oates check the health of a beehive at the Ellis Unit near Huntsville.

“We’re looking for that 20 percent increase in pollination so we can increase our garden crop in the range of 10 to 15 percent,” said ALM Edible Crops Assistant Manager Roger Shed. “It’s all about keeping the offender population fed as much as possible from within.”

“The more we produce, the less money the Food Service Department has to spend to purchase items to feed the population,” said Greg Adams, Edible and Field Crops manager for ALM.

An average farm-raised bee colony consists of one queen and anywhere from 10,000 to 15,000 loyal subjects. Most are worker bees, all of which are sterile females. They are the bees that gather pollen and nectar within a half-mile radius of their hive each day, and in the process, pollinate plants.

Much of the buzz over bees, of course, has to do with their honey. An average colony can produce several gallons of the sweet stuff each year. And while the honey TDCJ hives produce will go to unit kitchens, honey production is secondary to the bees’ main mission.

“We’re after pollination, not honey,” Oates said. “The honey will be just a by-product. We need pollination first and foremost because that’s what puts food on the table.”

By getting back into the bee business, Oates said TDCJ is simply getting back to nature.

“Approximately 70 percent of everything involving agriculture depends on some form of pollination and the honey bee is the most efficient pollinator that we know of on earth,” Oates said. “Even modern science cannot duplicate the pollination of crops by bees. We humans are no where near as efficient as the bees.”

“The whole world depends on bees,” Shed added. “It’s nature at its best.”

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Texas Board of Criminal Justice governs agency operations

Gavel As the Texas Board of Criminal Justice (TBCJ or Board) governs the operations of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, the following overview is provided as insight into how the Board is composed and how it carries out its duties and responsibilities.

The TBCJ is made up of nine (9) non-salaried members appointed by the Governor to serve staggered six-year terms. The chairman of the Board is selected by and serves at the pleasure of the Governor, while the Board’s vice-chair and secretary are recommended and voted upon annually by their fellow members. Currently, Christina Melton Crain (Dallas) serves as the chairman, with Pierce Miller (San Angelo) as vice-chair, and Patsy Day (Dallas) as secretary.

The Board governs the operations of the TDCJ primarily by selecting the executive director, by establishing rules and policies that guide the agency, and by considering other agency actions at its regularly scheduled meetings. The Board also serves in a separate capacity as Board of Trustees for the Windham School District (WSD) by hiring a superintendent and providing similar oversight.

Topics under the jurisdiction of the Board are quite varied. They include, among other things, approval of the agency’s budget request; establishing standards for the operation of community supervision and parole supervision services; overseeing facility construction, prison industries, and agricultural operations; approving significant contracts for private correctional services; controlling critical policies on the treatment of offenders, such as, but not limited to, use of force, discipline, and access to courts; and reviewing lawsuits from torts and contracts, to employment and prison law. The Board is also responsible for selecting the TDCJ inspector general, director of Internal Audits, and director of State Counsel for Offenders.

The Board has developed a system of “board policies” in fulfilling its statutory duties to set policy and delineate its role vis-à-vis the TDCJ staff. These diverse policies cover topics that include Board responsibilities, delegations of authority, standards of conduct for the Board and executive director, equal employment opportunity, the agency’s investment policy, as well as purchasing and contracting with Historically Underutilized Businesses.

The Board also adopts more formal “board rules.” These are usually in response to a specific statutory requirement that administrative rules be applied to a given policy area, or when a rule impacts the general public. Rules developed by Texas agencies are required to be disseminated through the Texas Register, a publication of the Texas Secretary of State’s Office, and once adopted, they become a part of the Texas Administrative Code (TAC). The development of a new rule or amendments to an existing rule require Board approval as a proposed action and must be posted in the Texas Register to allow public comments for 30 days before it can be adopted by the Board for implementation. Rules governing the TDCJ are located in the TAC, under Title 37, Public Safety and Corrections, Part 6, and are divided into eight (8) chapters covering general provisions, special programs, parole, community justice assistance (probation), correctional institutions (prisons/state jails) and other related topics. A good example of a Board Rule is Section 151.4, which provides the guidelines to allow public comment and testimony at a Board meeting.

In carrying out its authority, the Board is required to meet in open/public session at least once each calendar quarter. However, it tends to meet more frequently and typically holds meetings six (6) or seven (7) times a year, or as issues and circumstances dictate. The majority of its meetings are held in Austin, but once a year, one (1) meeting is usually scheduled in Huntsville. At these meetings, the Board will receive various reports and will vote on actions within their authority. With the diverse and broad-reaching operations of the agency, the Board also uses a subcommittee structure to facilitate its oversight. The Board chairman is empowered by the Board to appoint members and chairs to standing or limited-purpose committees as needed. These committees allow those Board members to become familiar with specific issues so as to bring forth recommendations to the full Board. Since many committee meetings are held in conjunction with the scheduled Board meetings, these also provide an avenue for agency staff to publicly discuss various programs and new initiatives.

The responsibilities of the Board are broad and far-reaching and touch on every facet of the agency. Its sound guidance and actions significantly influence the agency as it carries out its mission and serves the citizens of Texas.

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