A prisoner tending to crops on the farm

Free range chickens Perched atop the panoramic high point of Balsam's Ghut, overlooking Little Bay and northeast towards, Guana and Anegada islands, Her Majesty' Prison encompasses 25 acres, five of which are dedicated to farming and raising livestock.

Supervisor Vandoll Abbey, known locally as just "Abbey" or "the Egg Man," has been overseeing the farm since its inception in 1998. The BVI prison moved from its thick-walled historic, yet cramped site on Main Street to the expansive Balsam's Ghut property in 1997. The farm began as a concept that was to serve a dual purpose of rehabilitation for inmates and a practical way to produce food for their consumption.

"We started out with clearing and working the land, first planting easy crops like corn and eggplant, pumpkins, sweet peppers, cabbage and lettuce," Abbey explains. Then fruit trees like papaya and banana were planted and tomatoes, cucumbers, bok choy and watermelon were added to the produce and fruit harvest. The fresh crops provide variety and healthy additions to the inmates' menu and in bumper crop seasons, offer the opportunity to sell to the community as well. One of the Rastafarian prison farm workers, identifiable in his bright orange shirt, proudly let me know that the produce is organic as well. There appears to not be much of a problem with bugs and natural sprays with dish soap and hot pepper are used if needed.

The prison farm is high in the sky, yet nestled on a gently sloping hill that ends where the office and egg production are housed in a small concrete building close to the entrance gate. Other out buildings include three spacious chicken coops one of which is quite long and divided in two sections, a hog shed, a feed storage house, and a small slaughtering area behind the egg house that also boasts a chicken plucking machine.

Prison supervisor Vandoll AbbeyPast the rows of planted crops, beyond the bush and natural growth, the ocean view is stunning. I imagine for inmates, the opportunity to be out from behind concrete walls and constant noise must constitute a heavenly environmental therapy. Abbey agrees. "My inmate workers tell me being here provides a stress-free atmosphere and they say the time just flies by when working on the farm." Right now there are five full time farm workers with plans to increase the number by three to four more.

Prison Superintendent Richard Holder commands the top post at Her Majesty's Prison, with the responsibility of overseeing all operations. The Principal Officer charged with over all aspects of running the farm is Alexander Mills, one of the longest serving veteran officers in the force with a career spanning 27 years. He is a people person with a love for his job. "I have found if you treat the prisoners with dignity, take the time to listen to their concerns, be a counselor to them, you earn their respect," he says. "We have just over a hundred inmates here now and not everyone is allowed to work on the farm, it is a privilege that is earned." Inmates must pass a security assessment, based on the severity of their crime, their ability to be team players and follow instructions from their officers.

The first livestock the farm invested in were pigs. Piglets when mature are called either boars (male) or gilts (female). Once a female is impregnated and has a litter she becomes a sow. The farm has about 50 pigs right now with the majority of the mature older ones being sows with two boars retained for mating purposes. Most of the pigs are slaughtered between six to seven months of age when the meat is still very tender.

A pig on the farm Chickens were added around 2004, when batches of small chicks were first imported from Barbados. The farm features two varieties: "broilers" and "layers." As their names imply – one is specifically for eating and the other for egg production. Broilers are slaughtered at six to seven weeks, when they reach maturity. Layers are kept in the flock up to two years or until their egg production stops, when they are also slaughtered for meat.

In the strict sense of the animal husbandry term "free range," livestock and fowl are kept in a widely fenced space and are therefore free to forage large areas, some of it wild. These "prison" hen layers at Balsam's Ghut have quite a lot of wing room and are housed in spacious coops. Compared to some US commercial production standards that squeeze chickens tightly together in cages, where there is no room for movement, these fowl strut around in "executive suites." Possibly that adds to the flavor of the eggs. It can't hurt to have "happy" layers.

All the chickens are fed a mixed grain feed that is supplemented with local wild guinea grass. Feeders dangle from the ceiling alternating with hanging watering stations. Egg collection occurs twice a day, once in the morning and again midday. Inmates take five gallon buckets that hold about 15 dozen eggs. A daily egg collection yields about 30 to 40 dozen eggs. Once cleaned and inspected, the light brown eggs go into pale green custom designed Styrofoam egg crates with Her Majesty's Prison Farm and the logo emblazoned over the heads of two chickens. This is definitely an eye catcher in your shopping cart and a testament to the healthy and creative output of the prison farm.

Eggs (and some produce) from the prison can be found at the main Riteway super market in Pasea, or can be bought directly from the farm by appointment. Although priced slightly higher in the stores than imported eggs – knowing where the hens come from, how they are treated and what they are fed, goes a long way in making the price difference justifiable. Just ask Abbey the Egg Man.