REMBERT -- Behind the fence at the state prison here, an unpaved road lined with trees opens up to a farm along the banks of the Wateree River where inmates work to feed themselves.

Two inmates, dressed identically in tan prison-issued uniforms, sit atop a machine Monday in the farm's gristmill. They use the machine to grind up the corn kernels while another pair of inmates package the grits in heavy brown paper bags. They produce a bag of grits valued at $35 for just $4.70. The grits will be shipped across South Carolina to feed the state's 24,000 inmates.

Jon Ozmint, director of the state Department of Corrections, said the prison's three farms are key to keeping the cost of feeding state inmates at $1.51 a day each, the lowest in the country. The farms produce all the milk, eggs and grits the prisons use, saving the Corrections Department almost $600,000 a year.

The cash-strapped prison system has been forced to run a deficit since the recession hit. But Ozmint said the agency is continuing to look for ways to cut costs, including a new dairy at the Wateree River Correctional Institution set to open in January. The ongoing economic slump has forced lawmakers to cut $2 billion in spending, bringing the state budget to about $5 billion.

Find a state that runs prisons cheaper with the same safety standards, and Ozmint said the state Corrections Department will match it.

"We want taxpayers to know, we want to do everything we can to keep costs low," he said.

Across the 7,000-acre farm in Rembert, inmates ride John Deere tractors to harvest feed as cattle egrets flutter away from the blades.

Another handful of the 200 or so inmates who work the farm convert trees grown on prison land into planks used to build fencing and repair state buildings. Others milk cows and pasteurize and homogenize their milk as part of the prison's dairy operations.

Ozmint said the new $7 million dairy under construction at the Wateree institution could decrease the prisons' deficit by as much as $2 million a year. The deficit in the budget year that ended in June was about $30 million and is projected to run $10 million this fiscal year.

The new dairy is expected to pay for itself within the next decade, if not sooner, Ozmint said. The dairy will supply inmates across the state with milk after it opens and an excess of 1.8 million gallons a year will be sold on the open market.

Jamie Cantrell, a field representative with the Dairy Farmers of America, and state Agriculture Commissioner Hugh Weathers both said that the new dairy won't compete with South Carolina farmers. They say that's because the approximately 80 private dairies operating in South Carolina produce just about a third of the milk consumed in the state. The rest comes from out of state.

About 200 cows at the state dairy now produce 500,000 gallons of milk a year. When the new dairy is fully operational next July, 1,000 cows will provide 2.3 million gallons of milk.

John Harmon, Corrections Department director for facilities management, said prisoners provide much of the manpower to build the new dairy. About 45 inmates work on the construction site each day and contractors are hired to do some technical work that inmates can't perform.

Prison labor has had a checkered past across much of the nation. Inmates -- some forced to work in inhumane conditions compared to slave labor -- have been used to produce goods that have undercut the private sector and introduced unfair competition into the market. Now, prison labor is seen as a way to cut prison costs, teach skills to inmates and help control them by providing prisoners with something constructive to do.

The Wateree farm, once segregated, has been in operation since the late 1800s. South Carolina inmates also produce license tags and their own bedding.

Ozmint said inmates in state prisons don't get paid for their work, but South Carolina's prison industries provide the inmates with a form of rehabilitation through job training and they can get "good-time credit" to shorten their sentence.

Duane, a St. Matthews man serving an 11-year sentence for a fatal car crash he caused while driving drunk, said he'd rather work in the heat than sit on his duff waiting for the last four years of sentence to run out. Inmates can have little interaction with the media, and they are not authorized to share their last names.

He is a handyman, at one time owning his own contracting business, who is working on the construction of the new dairy. Duane said he is grateful for the opportunity to keep his skills sharp while in prison.

"I enjoy doing this," he said Monday, as the temperature in Rembert climbed toward 100 degrees.

Reach Yvonne Wenger at 803-926-7855 or ywenger@postandcourier.com.