Friday, June 30, 2000

Inmates growing produce

Butler County prisoners saving county money, helping the needy

By Janice Morse
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Inmate Steve Smack uses a tiller to turn soil in the Butler County sheriff's garden
(Dick Swaim photo)
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        MADISON TWP. — On 18 acres of county-owned land that once sat unused, Butler County prisoners grow produce to feed fellow inmates, the hungry — and sometimes supermarket customers.

        The sheriff's garden, located off Woodsdale Road, also saves taxpayers' money, said Sheriff Harold Don Gabbard.

        “By growing the crops ourselves, that's a lot of food we don't have to buy. And some of the extras, we trade to Jungle Jim's (Fairfield supermarket) to earn what we call "Jungle Jim Dollars,'” he said. “We use those to buy food you can't grow in the garden.”

        Last year, the garden saved $10,000 — 2 percent of the total bill for serving about 500,000 meals at the county's two lockups, said Capt. Norm Lewis, jail warden. He noted that inmates consider the garden work detail one of the most honorable assignments for jail trusties, who have good be havior.

        The garden also generated four to five tons of produce for area food banks last year, said Deputy Clayton Walther, a former Ross Township farmer who supervises the garden program.

        While a number of prisons run farming operations, it's unusual for a county jail crew to cultivate a garden, said Steve Ingley, executive director of the American Jail Association. Getting a garden program up and running is difficult for jails, he said, because of lack of resources and short inmate stays.

        Among the crops in Sheriff Gabbard's garden: five varieties of corn and two types of green beans, along with tomatoes, onions, watermelon, zucchini and pumpkins.

        “It's been a real blessing,” said Sharon Waldron, spokeswoman for Shared Harvest Foodbank, which received a couple of tons of the garden's crops last year. “Often the agencies

        that get the food are giving it to people that need it within 24 hours of when it was first picked — which is probably fresher than you get it when you go to the grocery store.”

        Produce is especially difficult for food banks to obtain because of its relatively short shelf life, Ms. Waldron said, and donations of produce have declined in recent years.

        “The best part about it is know ing that the food we grow here is going to feed the needy,” inmate Steve Smack, 39, said during a work break Wednesday. “If you're doing that, you're doing the Lord's work. You can't go wrong there.”

        Mr. Smack said he dislikes humidity and mosquitoes, but it beats being locked up. “When you compare it to that, there's nothing bad out here,” he said.

        While dozens of inmates will be needed to harvest the crops, only a couple of prisoners come to the garden with Mr. Walther around 6 a.m. most mornings. The workers run a rotary tiller and eat lunch made on a gas grill — both items that were confiscated from drug dealers, said Col. Richard K. Jones, the sheriff's chief deputy.

        The inmates also use a tractor donated by Deputy Walther.

        While crediting the sheriff for starting the program four years ago, Ms. Waldron said Deputy Walther “is the hero in all of this.”

        Deputy -Walther, 74, probably would have retired from the sheriff's office, where he has been a deputy since 1977, if he hadn't loved the garden program so much, she said.

        Ms. Waldron said it makes sense that Deputy Walther and the inmates enjoy the work.

        “Gardening is emotionally satisfying,” she said. “It also keeps hands busy and gives people a sense of achievement.”


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