(Written by Mallory Gruben of the Yuma Pioneer)
|Yuma County Jail Garden|
“Do you see that back there?” he asks, pointing to a watermelon that just about the size of a quarter. “Here’s another one. There’s a lot of them growing; right here is another set.”
Laurie Clemons, jail programs coordinator, smiles and replies, “If we get them big enough and they ripen out, I could work that over in the inmate kitchen and slice that up for you guys, and let you sit at the picnic tables and have that as a treat.”
The pair, inmate and officer, are tending to the inmate garden just across the street from the county courthouse. For almost three hours each day — with the exception of the days when Clemons is unavailable to oversee the outdoor activities — the male inmate steps out of the jail and into the role of gardener.
Inmate gardens have recently become commonalities in correctional facilities throughout the nation, including big name facilities like Riker’s Island. This year Yuma County joined the roster as one of the facilities to offer inmates the chance to grow produce while serving their sentence.
“What’s unique about us is that there aren’t any facilities of our size that are doing things like this,” said Sheriff Chad Day. “While there is some risk involved, I firmly believe that it’s worth those risks to try and see if it can work.”
The garden officially took root on Memorial Day under the command of Clemons. Two female inmates who were residing in the county jail at the time were cleared to help pilot the program. With the help of Colorado State University (CSU) curriculum, generous donations from Baldwin Tree Services and Ace Hardware and hours of labor by the inmates, what was previously a sandbur-ridden area transformed into a thriving garden, all at no cost to the taxpayers.
“We literally started with dirt, and they worked a solid 10-hour day and planted the entire garden,” Clemons said. “They even designed an American flag flower bed. They didn’t have perfect red, white and blue flowers, but when you go out there and look at it you can see it. And it was a decision they exercised control over to bring a little beauty into the world.”
Encouraging positive and controlled decision-making plays a large role in the garden’s function at the jail. The garden serves as a complement to a program installed by the sheriff’s department to help inmates learn to make better decisions.
“We wanted a more productive use of the inmates’ time, and we wanted something educational, so the first place the sheriff wanted to start is a class called Moral Recognition Therapy (MRT),” Clemons said. “Essentially what MRT does as a class is it makes people look at their last decisions that led them to the place that they are — which is a bad place — and then makes them choose to take responsibility for their actions to change their future. It teaches reflection, accountability and greater decision-making skills.”
In its entirety, MRT focuses on reducing recidivism to hopefully prevent an inmate’s return to jail once they are released. The inmate garden is not directly incorporated into the MRT program, but it offers a metaphor that reiterates the program’s overall message. Inmates learn to make better choices, weed out their problems and nurture new, positive growth in their lives while literally weeding out the garden and nurturing new growth on the plants.
But the inmate garden is about more than just the metaphor. It also provides inmates with the chance to gain real life skills that can positively impact their lives.
“We wanted something hands on to drive the message [of MRT] home, and we landed on the concept of a garden,” Clemons said. “We started talking with CSU and it turned into a master gardener certification class. If the inmates go all the way through the class, they walk out with a certificate that says they learned how to be a successful gardener, which we feel is a valuable life skill.”
These certifications reiterate the true mission of the project.
“The purpose of the program has very little to do with the actual produce that comes from [the garden]. The purpose of the program is about finding ways to give inmates tools to be productive when they are not in jail and to not come back to jail,” Day said.
Many recent studies have found that inmate garden programs are successful in the long-term at lowering the recidivism rates for facilities that use them, but Clemons hopes to offer the inmates an immediate pay off, as well. She is looking into ways that will allow the sheriff’s department to use the produce grown in the garden for the meals made in the facility’s kitchen.
“Using our own home grown produce reduces the cost of running the kitchen just a little bit, so that saves taxpayers in Yuma County dollars,” Clemons said. “It improves the quality of the meals for the inmates, and they get to go through the full circle experience of reaping the rewards of their labors.”
Even if the produce is not used within the jail, it will not go to waste. According to Clemons and Day, if the garden’s yield cannot be incorporated into the inmates’ meals, the department will look into ways of donating the fresh veggies back to the community for those in need.
Because the garden is located outside of the jail and public safety is of concern, not all inmates are allowed to work there. An inmate is cleared to leave the jail under Clemons’s strict supervision only if the department classifies them as low risk, non-threatening and unlikely to try to run away.
So far, three inmates have been approved to work in the garden. The first two gardeners were the female inmates that completed the planting, and now a male inmate looks after the crops.
“It improves my morale. It gives me something to look forward to everyday, and it’s something else to focus on besides my anger and frustrations about what I’ve done,” the male inmate said. “It’s good to have something to do, and I thank Laurie and the sheriff’s department for choosing me to do this.”
The inmates are not the only ones with positive feedback about the garden. According to Day, many of the deputies report that the garden — and other similar MRT-related programs — has seemed to change the environment within the jail for the better. Some deputies even noted that many inmates have been behaving better in what seems to be hopes of being cleared to work in the garden.
Courthouse staff members also regard the garden as beneficial, praising the sheriff department’s ability to get inmates working instead of sitting around for most of the day.
“It’s been nice to look outside, see Laurie out there and see that they’re actually doing something with the inmates,” said Cindy Taylor, county assessor. “I’m just so impressed that they are doing something, and it gives the inmates something to look forward to.”
Back in the garden, the inmate walks alongside his crop. He stops momentarily to pull back the leaves of a pumpkin plant, revealing a small squash just beginning to take on an orange hue.
“I’m really excited about passing out pumpkins at the courthouse. Wouldn’t it be cool if we send home pumpkins with staff members who have small kids?” Clemons says.
The inmate smiles briefly at the thought of the small pumpkin’s future before resuming his garden chores. There’s still some work to be done.