GREENPORT–Tomatoes, peppers, squash, broccoli, cabbage, cucumbers, yellow and green beans, rosemary, parsley, basil and a variety of lettuces are among the crops now being planted across the region by backyard gardeners, vegetable farmers and inmates at the Columbia County Jail.
So far, 11 with green thumb prints have enlisted in the new Inmate Horticulture Program, which Sheriff David W. Harrison Jr. introduced at a recent press conference.
In a corner behind the jail, next to a newly started compost pile and a couple of impounded vehicles, within the fenced-in perimeter of the County Public Safety Building compound, a 50- by-200-foot area of what used to be lawn has been stripped of its top layer of sod.
Three-yards of composted cow manure was trucked in from Gro Max in Claverack and spread across the 1,000-square-foot plot. Then a Rototiller, donated for a day by Air Compressor Plus in Ghent, was used to work the manure into the soil.
County jail inmates participated in the clearing and tilling of the garden beginning May 1, and they are now planting their crops under the tutelage and guidance of Cornell Cooperative Extension volunteer master gardeners.
Extension Educator Steve Hadcock and Master Gardener Donna Peterson were on hand for the program rollout, along with inmate Miguel Matta, who received some instruction during the press conference from Ms. Peterson, who advised him about the proper spacing of plants.
Sheriff Harrison credited Jail Captain John Davi with the idea and Correction Officers Daniel Tompkins and John Leone for their work getting the program growing.
The only other county jail in the state that has a gardening program in place is Allegheny County, according to the captain. The program is open to men and women inmates and has the approval of the state Commission of Correction.
One purpose of the program is to teach willing inmates a “life skill,” said the sheriff, who added that it is one of only a few such programs available at the jail. The knowledge and experience in horticulture from the program is something inmates might use at home and it could help them get jobs in landscaping or related fields.
Also a consideration in the program’s favor is that nearly 135,000 meals a year are served at the jail; that’s 120 meals 3 times a day for 365 days.
“Produce is expensive,” said Capt. Davi. So, the inmates’ harvest will go directly to the jail kitchen and show up on their plates.
The county bears no cost for the program and may even save a few bucks in food costs.
The garden comes with a pre-existing chain-link fence at least 10 feet tall and topped with razor wire, so deer will not be chowing down on the vegetables.
But the fence does not deter all wildlife. A bullfrog and a heron have been spotted on surveillance equipment casing the scene for future snacking possibilities. Both were released on their own recognizance.
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