Tuesday, May 21, 2013
By Craig Crosby firstname.lastname@example.org
Randall Liberty still remembers the note he sent nearly 20 years ago to Kennebec County Sheriff Frank Hackett. Liberty, at that point a deputy just a few years on the job, simply asked Hackett why the county did not have a garden.
PRISONERS PLOTTING: Kennebec County jail inmates cover potato seeds planted recently at a plot the prisoners are cultivating in Augusta. Inmates are working roughly 11 acres over multiple locations, according to Kennebec County Sheriffs Office Lt. Michael Hicks.
Staff photo by Andy Molloy
"I had this crazy idea," Liberty said, chuckling at the memory.
Liberty, now Kennebec County's sheriff, believes more than ever that having jail inmates grow vegetables can play an important role in helping feed the hungry and giving inmates a sense of purpose.
"I think it's therapeutic," Liberty said. "It's a meaningful endeavor."
What started as just a 2-acre garden 17 years ago has grown to roughly 11 acres spread over several locations, including Lawrence High School in Fairfield, Waterville resident Ken Rossignol's and a plot in Benton.
The largest gardens, however, are on land off Cony Road that is owned by the Maine Department of Conservation's Bureau of Parks and Lands. Kennebec County currently gardens about six acres in the fields, which were once owned and farmed by the Augusta Mental Health Institute.
The county and Department of Conservation are working on an agreement that would allow the county to plant an additional 17 acres.
"The idea is to have more land to rotate the crops," Liberty said.
David Rodrigues of the Maine Department of Conservation said the inmate gardens are appealing because they allow the fields to maintain their historic purpose.
"We find the use that the sheriff's office is proposing has all kinds of benefits," Rodrigues said. "It's a great partnership we're trying to develop."
The inmate garden program is run by Liberty, Lt. Michael Hicks and Correctional Officers Mike Gagnon and John Matthews, all of whom have gone through a master gardener program offered by the University of Maine's Cooperative Extension.
"The original intention of the gardens, when the jail was providing its own food, was to help reduce the amount spent on feeding the inmates," Liberty said. "It's evolved to be a dual function now."
Kennebec County's contract with Aramark provides inmate meals for $1.37 apiece. A small portion of what the inmates grow in the gardens is used to supplement and enhance those meals, Liberty said.
"There's no financial benefit to the county," he said. "There's a real benefit to the community."
That's because the vast majority of the vegetables raised by the inmates are donated to Harvest for Hunger, a program run by the UMaine cooperative extension that encourages farmers to grow extra rows, or donate gleanings, to supply area food banks.
Harvest for Hunger hopes to collect 250,000 pounds worth of food this year, of which an estimated 100,000 will come from private and public gardens across Kennebec County, Liberty said.
The inmates' gardens typically supply about 50,000 pounds of food, but expanding the size of the gardens and working with the Cooperative Extension will help far exceed that number this year.
"Our goal is 75,000 pounds this year," Liberty said. "We're on track to do that."
Liberty hopes to do more than just increase the number of gardens at the Cony Road site, he is planning a barn to protect equipment and provide classroom space for inmates to learn about farming and nutrition. Liberty also would like to plant an orchard and begin a composting program.
The Sheriff is planning to kick off a fundraising effort this fall aimed at securing private and public grants to improve the facilities
"I hope we can be a statewide resource for other counties," Liberty said. "We need to find ways to save money. Maybe part of that will be raising our food."
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