Gardening at Kentucky jails is a growing trend

Inmates from the Harlan County Detention Center harvested beans last August. More and more counties in the state have instituted jail gardens in recent years.
Inmates from the Harlan County Detention Center harvested beans last August. More and more counties in the state have instituted jail gardens in recent years.

"Inch by inch, row by row, gonna make this garden grow."

So proclaims a well-known folk song by songwriter Dave Mallett.

These days, you just might hear it being sung around the Jessamine County Detention Center, where inmates soon will be dining on tasty, fresh vegetables that they have planted and raised themselves.

The jail in Nicholasville recently started its own vegetable garden to help cut food-service costs. On Thursday inmates were busy at the garden, checking over the beans, bell peppers, onions and other staples they hope to be harvesting in a few weeks.

It might not qualify as a victory garden, but it is something of a freedom garden, since inmates can earn time off their sentences by tending the plot. And if the garden, located on some previously unused county land, produces as hoped, the Jessamine detention center could save thousands of dollars on the cost of feeding prisoners, Jailer Jon Sallee says.

"We plowed up about six acres of ground and planted mainly corn, potatoes and cabbage, which are the vegetables we can use the most," he said. "But we also plan to raise some watermelons, cantaloupes, cucumbers, squash.

"We figure that if we plant in phases, we'll have vegetables keep coming in, some early, some late."

Sallee isn't the first Kentucky jailer to latch on to the idea.

Raising homegrown vegetables is an old tradition dating to Kentucky's earliest days. But gardening is a growing trend (no pun intended) at an increasing number of county jails across Kentucky. The vegetable gardens have been created to help defray the cost of feeding inmates, and it also gives the inmates a new skill, officials say.

Details vary from county to county. But the typical jail garden consists of acres where selected inmates raise and harvest beans, lettuce, cabbage and other vegetables, which are stored or frozen to help feed the jail population over the rest of the year. Inmates who are considered low flight risks, who have been cleared for work-release, or who are in alternative sentencing programs do most of the manual work, but they typically aren't allowed to operate power equipment.

And with many Kentucky counties still strapped for cash because of the continued national economic downturn, the potential cost savings of having county jail inmates produce their own food is a powerful lure.

Vince Lang, executive director of the Kentucky County Judge Executive Association, says jail gardens began appearing in Kentucky a few years ago, after a critical audit of county jails by then state auditor Crit Luallen.

"She talked about best practices for jails in her audit, and I think it got to be word of mouth after that," Lang said. "It helps the jails save money; it's a skill that inmates can learn. So it's a win-win situation for everybody."

Just ask the staff at the Harlan County Detention Center, which put out its first garden about five years ago. The jail now has its own tractor, harvesting equipment and food storage facilities. It has about 10 acres of land under cultivation this spring.

Sgt. Derrick Moore, a staffer at the jail, estimates that the garden operation saves about $9,500 a year on potatoes alone.

"We plant about four tons of potatoes every year," Moore said. "On 10 acres of land we produce 24 tons of potatoes and we use 20 tons to feed the jail population. That leaves four tons to store and put back in the ground the next year, all at no cost to the county."

Beyond the financial benefits, supporters also say that raising a jail garden provides other benefits as well, giving inmates something to do other than sitting out their sentences in cramped cells. Some bloggers and environmental Web sites also maintain that raising food can help inmates give up their law-breaking ways and find a new purpose in life.

"A lot of our inmates are young people who never had a garden and don't know anything about raising a garden," said Harlan County Jailer Curt Stallard. "But this teaches them how to raise their own food when they do get out of jail. So they're kind of learning how to survive in hard times."

Greenup County Jailer Mike Worthington says many inmates who work at the jail garden end up liking it so much that they plant their own gardens when they're released from custody. The Greenup jail started its first garden about four years ago, and inmates now raise vegetables on three sites.

"It's educational for them, they get some exercise and can take some pride in what they're doing," Worthington said.

Worthington said the garden also helps reduce overcrowding at the jail since some inmates can choose alternative sentencing, which lets them do work in the garden rather than serve time in a cell.

The Whitley County Jail is planting a garden for the first time this spring, according to Jailer Ken Mobley. Inmates have planted about five acres so far.

Mobley said he based his operation on Harlan County's jail garden.

"We're really hoping it's going to pay off," he said. "We look to save money, but the inmates will like the taste of the food better, and they get the pride of having grown it themselves.

"I think more and more jails are going to go this way."

Sallee, the Jessamine County jailer, says the garden there is part of an overall plan to cut the cost of feeding inmates at the jail, which usually runs around $200,000 a year.

In the past, the jail bought and prepared all its food. Now, in addition to the garden, Sallee has hired an outside firm to prepare the food, using produce from the garden.

And Sallee has decided to get into the act himself.

"I planted a small garden of my own this year," he said. "It's something I've always wanted to do."