You could think of them as the 'Birdmen of Alden.' Several inmates currently serving time at the Erie County Correctional Facility are participating in a new work program that officials believe is preparing the prisoners with job skills - and a new sense of discipline - that they'll need upon their eventual return to society.
Behind the Alden-based jail, behind the walls and razor wire and out of sight from passing cars on Walden Avenue, there's a fenced-in grassy lot. Inside that, there's a smaller pen enclosed by chicken wire fences and netting above that prevents nearby hawks from swooping in and snatching any of the 500 seven-week old pheasants being cared for by a small group of men in orange prison uniforms.
On a pleasant late Wednesday morning, Sheriff Timothy Howard and other members of his office are observing the inmates at work. Although in a correctional facility, the mood is relaxed as the lawmen watch the inmates tend to the large mass of birds.
"They learn personal responsibility. They learn to think ahead," said Sheriff Howard of participating inmates. "They demonstrate their ability to work in a team."
This is the pheasant brooding program created last winter by the Erie County Sheriff's Department, in cooperation with the New York State Department of Conservation. The work program, Howard says, is the latest vocational opportunity for inmates and costs a minimal amount of money for taxpayers. The correctional facility is able to provide these programs again, he explained to reporters, many years after cutting other work programs amidst Erie County's fiscal crisis, known notoriously as the "red budget-green budget" era.
"I hate to even bring that up, but a lot of programs were stopped," Howard said. "There were many suggestions, couldn't we do inmate laundry? Couldn't we do an inmate bakery?"
Those programs, he explained were lost when the county, in a cost-savings mode, eliminated previous work projects and replaced those spaces with housing.
In addition to the estimated 500 pheasants living in the outdoor pen, there were 500 hatchlings inside an adjacent shed, where they are kept contained and under a series of lamps. Officials explained that later this year, when the birds are older and able to fly, they will be released at the discretion of state conservation officials.
In the meantime, officials say the inmates have treated the pheasants like their pets and have demonstrated the will to behave while continuing their respective sentences.
"We notice the change because they get few disciplinary write-ups," said Paul Evans, Chief of Operations for the Sheriff's Jail Management Division. "They cause very few infractions within the facility."
It's part of the objective of the program, to get these men ready for their eventual release and return to the outside world.
"They're already expressing some satisfaction, some accomplishment and the fact that they've taken these pheasants from day-old chicks to the seven- or eight-week old birds that you see running behind us," said Sheriff Howard.