Eight inmate gardeners at James River Correctional Center said the long hours come easier knowing the hard work is helping people in need.
The small incentives are a big reward, said Derek Emineth, a JRCC inmate gardener. “We are a good group of guys who work well together and it’s just nice giving back.”
The garden has doubled in space and output since it started with 3,200 square feet in 2016 to 8,390 square feet this year, said Arlie Lind, a correctional officer and garden supervisor. The garden produced 3,911 pounds of vegetables in 2016 and an abundance of periodic rain this year could help them surpass 8,000 pounds, he said.
The produce of beets, cabbage, carrots, garlic, green beans, green peppers, onions, potatoes, pumpkins, sweet peas, tomatoes, squash and zucchini is delivered weekly to the Community Action Region VI Food Pantry, Lind said.
“This is huge,” said Sarah Oberlander, coordinator of the Community Action food pantry. “We don't get any fresh produce besides what people bring in to us.”
The clientele love the fresh produce and are already asking about the squash, but that’s a fall vegetable and will come in later, she said. The pantry is grateful to Lind and the inmates, she said.
“It’s a win-win all around,” Oberlander said.
The James River Community and Senior Center also receives produce for distribution, Lind said.
Vegetables are difficult to afford on a limited budget, said Maureen Wegenke, executive director of the senior center.
"We have a table set up at the center where seniors and others can pick up this produce,” Wegenke said “What a blessing for them.”
The purpose of the program is to teach new skills that the inmates can take with them when they leave, Lind said. The gardeners, some with and some without experience, are proud of their work and to know the result is helping people in need, he said.
“I’m so proud of those guys,” Lind said. “They do such a nice job and truly enjoy working out there.”
The response from retailers has been to donate seeds to the prison garden program as a way to support the food pantries, Lind said. Country Gardens Floral & Greenhouse Inc. donates potato seedlings and Home of Economy donates other seeds, he said.
“With the support of local merchants we have zero dollars expended in the garden,” Lind said. “Everything is donated.”
The pumpkins are used for a pumpkin painting event with children and fathers, said JRCC Warden Chad Pringle. The kids can take the pumpkin home with them, he said.
The gardeners also built a sensory garden in the recreation yard and maintain floral gardens around the facility, Pringle said. The construction class built raised flower planters for inmate walking areas to contrast the concrete and fence surroundings, he said.
“Just being able to walk by the flowers definitely has a calming impact and we have got a lot of positive comments from people who said they definitely appreciate it,” Pringle said.
The construction class built 12 adirondack chairs for the sensory garden and recreation yard, where inmates can sit among sunflowers and other plants that attract butterflies and hummingbirds, he said. A koi pond is in the works along with a tree nursery, he said.
“We are lucky that Arlie is willing to share his skills and gifts with these guys,” Pringle said. “He is a unique resource.”
Robert Venker, inmate gardener, said the work is like therapy and he enjoys watching the results with the fast-growing vegetables.
“It’s a totally different environment and it’s a little touch of the free world,” Venker said.
Lind said he understands the therapeutic effect of a garden. He said his home garden is a “refuge from when life turns its back on you.” It goes the same that the prison garden is an outlet for the inmates, he said.
“It has changed these guys that are involved in the program for the better,” Lind said. “We give them an opportunity to make a positive change in their life and the majority of the time they will pick that up and take that with them.”