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Jail gardening project is slowly taking root

By Ed DuBois

            Some of the inmates at the Wright County Jail get to work outside once in a while in the summertime.  Gardening programs are not common at county jails, but Wright County has the space, a good location and a program coordinator who grew up on a farm and likes gardening.

            Sheriff Joe Hagerty said a gardening program was suggested a few years ago by Wright County Commissioner Pat Sawatzke.  Some advice was obtained from a corrections official who oversees a gardening program for inmates at a state facility in Moose Lake.  Today, the Wright County Jail's gardening program is in its second year.

            Jo Carpenter, the jail's program coordinator, said a very wet spring and then hot, dry weather conditions during the summer of 2013 resulted in a meager harvest.  But she and Jail Administrator Pat O'Malley, as well as Sheriff Hagerty, understood it would take some time to get the garden program running well.  They decided to give it a good five years to get established.


Qualifying inmates

            Sentence to Service inmates did much of the garden preparation work both last year and this year.  As many inmates as possible are invited to tend to the garden throughout the summer.  However, only inmates who meet the criteria for the program are eligible.  They must be non-violent.  They must want to be in the program, and they must be responsible so they can be depended upon to work and not goof off.

            About 20 different inmates were involved with the garden program last year.  So far this year, 15 inmates have worked in the garden.  The jail population continually changes, so it is hard to say how many inmates will be involved by the end of the growing season.

            Usually only one or two inmates work in the garden at any given time.


Not worth causing trouble

            O'Malley said most of the participants tend to be work release inmates.  They have demonstrated they can be trusted.

            He added that using the garden program as a way to escape the jail is not in the participant's best interest.

            "They have more to lose than gain if they do something dumb while they are out here," O'Malley said.

            They could lose their eligibility for participating in the program, and, depending on what they do, they could even end up with a longer jail term.


Positive influence

            Carpenter remembers two particular inmates who worked out especially well last year.  The two ladies often worked together on the garden and did a very good job.

            "Both of them commented, 'When I go home, I'm going to have a garden,'" Carpenter recalled.

            Both Carpenter and O'Malley were encouraged by that statement.  The garden program is aimed at making life better for the inmates, and if it carries over to something positive after they leave the jail, the program is working even better than hoped.

            Funds for the garden program come from the jail canteen profits.  Inmates can buy certain items at the canteen.

            "It's all inmate money (that runs the garden program)," Carpenter said.


Food for the kitchen

            Besides giving inmates something positive to do at the jail, the garden provides food for the jail's kitchen.  In fact, the items grown in the garden are selected with the kitchen in mind.  Some of the items include: potatoes, cucumbers, zucchinis, onions, green beans, rhubarb, and raspberries.

            The potatoes did not grow well last year, and they do not appear to be doing any better this year.

            "I'm not giving up on them," Carpenter said.

            She is looking into getting more sand in the soil where the potatoes are planted.  The existing dark soil holds moisture extremely well.

            "We began growing rhubarb when a clerk's mom was thinning out her rhubarb at home and gave some of it to us," Carpenter mentioned.

            As for the raspberries, only one plant survived last year.

            Carpenter has been in touch with the Extension Service and the Master Gardeners.  This year, Red Heritage raspberry plants were introduced to the garden.  They tend to grow well in Minnesota's climate, and so far they are looking good.


Garden boxes

            Another addition this year is container (raised box) gardens.  They provide better access to the plants, and they drain moisture better, Carpenter said.

            She was asked about growing corn, and she said it is hard to justify the space required to grow enough corn for a relative few meals.  Corn is more labor intensive than other garden plants, and it is easily lost to raccoons, which tend to pull down corn stalks.

            Without corn in the garden, evidence of raccoon visits has not been seen, but deer and rabbits have been seen out there, O'Malley said.


Better meals

            One of the newer plants in the garden is oregano, which is a perennial plant and can be used in the kitchen.

            Peppers are growing in some of the container gardens.

            "People were so happy when we added peppers to the salads for the first time," Carpenter said.

            O'Malley commented that corrections work is less stressful when the inmates are content, and the appreciation of good meals can make a difference.

            "Messing up meals too much can cause more problems than it's worth," he commented.


Getting outside

            This year's garden got off to a soggy start, but the weather conditions have improved in recent weeks, and there is optimism regarding the produce that could go to the kitchen from the garden later this summer.

            Not every county jail has the space and the right location for a garden.  Therefore, the Wright County Jail is one of just a few that has a garden program.

            Wright County also has a program coordinator who happens to enjoy growing things.  Now and then, Carpenter likes to step out of the jail and see how the garden is doing.

            Because of the garden, some of the inmates get to work outside once in a while in the summertime.  Now and then, Carpenter will join them.


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