By Josh Saunders
Meet the woman running a jailhouse animal form staffed seven days a week by unpaid inmates she hopes to reform.
Jeanne Selander, 48, from the Florida Keys, USA, has had a thousand inmates working alongside her during her 12 years at Monroe County Sheriff’s Office Animal Farm.
They do everything from feeding and cleaning up after the animals, to maintenance work and even helping when the public visits on open days.
There are up to 200 animals on the farm that have been rescued, found abandoned, abused, confiscated by authorities, donated or given up by people who can no longer take care of them.
She rehomes farmyard and exotic animals, ranging from horses and bulls, to sloths, alligators, tortoises, emus, lemurs, exotic birds, snakes and lizards, and more.
The crew of four inmates work eight-hour days, seven days a week and often forgo their day off as Jeanne claims they prefer the job to ‘being up in the jail with those animals’.
She believes the programme helps to build the self-esteem and confidence of the inmates, allowing them to feel they are contributing to society and helps to reform them.
The marine-biologist turned ‘farmer’, witnesses many of the former-inmates come back to visit with their families after being released and is often thanked for giving them the opportunity.
Jeanne said: “I was a little nervous at first having not worked in a jail, I’m a marine biologist by degree and at first I wondered what I got myself into.
“I thought about what could happen if someone decided to hold me hostage, but in reality it’s so far away from that.
“If I ever had a situation where one wasn’t happy with me the others wouldn’t let anything happen, I watch my back but feel very safe.
“I’ve seen a lot of changes in the inmates, some of them start off scared of the animals, but after giving it a chance, they even become comfortable working with larger animals like a bull or horse.
“Some of the inmates have never been loved or cared for in their lives, but these animals need love and care too, so the inmates can give back through loving the animals.
“It opens them up, I watch them building bonds with the animals, enjoying their time and learning.
“I remember on big, burly and heavily tattooed guy talking to a ferret, it was the coolest thing.
“During the open days the inmates really like holding animals for the kids to pet and being able to talk to the community.
“It’s really good for their self-esteem and shows they are worth something, some of them don’t feel they have any good in them.
“They are good people at heart and want to serve the farm, it’s good for them to care about something that needs them.
“They fact that they come back to the farm after being released speaks volumes and shows how much they love the animals, as well the success of the programme.
“I see some of them on the street too, we are a small community, and many come up to me and say thank you for letting me work on the farm.
“They say it makes their time easier and changes their perspective on things, which is nice to hear.”
The inmates, who are in jail for under a year, are carefully selected by the Deputies and Wardens, Jeanne says she trusts their judgement and never feels unsafe.
They must hit certain criteria before being allowed to work including not being jail for violent crimes, animal abuse or sex offence, not be a ‘flight risk’ and have clearance to be outdoors.
Jeanne said: “I have had 1,000 inmates over the 12 years I have been working here, once they get a spot on the farm they stay because it’s a very coveted and hard job to get.
“They apply for it and then are screened by the deputies who check their records to see if they are eligible, then on the farm I evaluate them.
“You have to like animals and have the qualifications to work outside and interact with the public.”
The selected four crew members work alongside Jeanne, committing to eight-hour days and often seven days a week working.
The position is voluntary, with Jeanne the only paid member of staff.
Jeanne said: “I have a crew to help me feed, clean, paint, building new habitats, open house events, maybe a vet or dentist is coming down, so we need all the help we can get.
“They have to like animals, not mind getting dirty and working hard, some decide they are too scared of the animals, it’s not what they want or can’t stand the smell or picking up poo.
“For the ones who do stay I really see a positive change, with them interacting with animals and because I’m putting my trust in them.
“Each inmate has a designated day off, but most don’t take it, they say they would ‘rather be down here with the animals than up in the jail with those animals’.
“They say it’s a lot more relaxing, peaceful and is a positive environment, rather than in their jail or cell.”
Alongside maintenance work and taking care of the animals, the inmates interact with the public during open house days.
Jeanne managed to grow the attendance from 12 people on her first open day to close to 300 now, she believes the purpose and public interaction helps the inmates.
She said: “At first they feared that people from the community would judge them, but they have been very supportive of this little farm and love what we do.
“The inmates tell me how invested they are and that it’s really good for their self-esteem.
“It allows them to get a job and be seen doing something good and contributing, not just seen for their crime.”
The two-hundred strong animal farm, draws people from all over the world and surprisingly even the former inmates who worked there.
Often the inmates bring their families along to show them the work they have done and revisit the animals they cared for.
Jeanne said: “I started taking animals out into the community to educate people and let them know about our little farm under the jail.
“It went from an oddity to a recognised facility, my mission it to get more programmes like this set up in other jails.
“I have a sloth who is the star of the show, ring-tailed lemurs, alpacas, emus, tortoises, turtles, rabbits, prairie dogs, sheep, horses, donkeys, turkeys, ducks, geese and lots of exotic animals and more.”
The Monroe County Sheriff’s Office Animal Farm is funded by donations and a stipend from the Inmate Welfare Fund, which collects money from the sale of canteen items to those in jail.
Jeanne said: “We get a small stipend from the fund to help cover a good portion of animal feed and vet bills, the other part is from donations.
“We don’t charge people to come in, people donate what they can afford, just cash donations and an Amazon wish list.
“I decided to set up the wish list two years ago and people love that as they can send the gift of an item we need and see that item being used.
“When I take an animal in, I’m giving it a home for the rest of its life, if I know we can’t do that then we don’t take the animal.
“We preach adopt don’t shop, we spay and neuter animals and to us they are a commitment to the animal’s lifetime.
“We try to teach kids about keeping animals in the wild and not in cages, when doing out reach it’s very important for me.”
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