AUSTIN (KXAN) - Five days a week, a handful of Travis County Jail inmates rise at the crack of dawn and head out to a 3 1/2 acre garden in their own back yard. Racing to beat 100-plus temperatures, they don sunglasses and hats, pick up their hoes and get to work. Each of them was carefully selected, based on an "objective" classification system.
"We use our 'minimum' classification of inmates," said Sheriff's Capt. Wes Priddy, "those typically who are charged with lesser offenses, misdemeanor offenses, certainly no assaultive offenses or anything of that nature. There are several factors that really weigh in on it. The charge is one of those, jail behavior, both current and past behaviors are taken into account. Also past criminal behavior is taken into account."
In exchange for their work, the inmates get some days shaved off their jail time. They like that, of course, but they actually like working in their garden, as well.
"You know, I've never been in a garden before but, you know, my grandmother and parents had a garden," said inmate Gary Jackson. "It's something new to volunteer to come out, you know, and see what they can plant."
Before he went to jail, inmate Jim Sanders had started a garden with his wife.
"It's kind of cool to get out here and find out on a larger scale from what we're doing," he said. "Especially with going with the organics and knowing that we need the ladybugs out here. And that you do have to weed a little more often. You are going to lose more fruit and vegetables but in the long run, you come out with a better product of fruit and vegetables."
"I was planning on growing my own garden," said inmate Dante Beard. "I didn't know how to do it at first, like to pick the vegetables and stuff. But now that I've learned, yeah, it's very useful, you know what I'm saying? I learned a lot."
And the inmates are not the only ones getting an education under the hot Central Texas sun.
"I didn't know a lot about gardening, " said Richard Constancio, the corrections officer in charge of the garden. "When the sheriff said, 'I want a garden,' I said, 'Yes, sir,' and started learning about different vegetables."
Constancio's studies paid off handsomely.
"We got squash, zucchini, cucumbers, radishes, spinach, onions," he said. "My onions, oh, I couldn't believe it. They were; I started them from bulbs and they were five inches thick."
Notice the use of the word, "I." Constancio knows the inmates do the lion's share of the work, but he is as invested in the project as they are.
"I get upset when it doesn't rain," he said. "If it would rain, it would be so much better out here. But luckily, we have this drip system that's working."
Literally tons of produce has moved from the garden to the jail kitchen, where supervisor Sean Hest sets the inmates who work there loose on the vegetables.
"He'll bring in a few hundred pounds of squash," Hest said. "We can chop it, clean and chop it and make it into a casserole of some kind. We've been provided with fresh onions and tomatoes to throw into things. It's alleviating the use of some of my canned goods and some of the fresh produce that I have to have brought in. It's been helping."
In fact, Priddy said the inmates are producing $1,500 to $2,000 worth of food every week from their spring garden and they're planning to put in a fall garden, as well.
But perhaps the greatest value of the garden project comes from the development of a marketable skill by the inmates.
"The big picture is that these guys would learn a skill, any marketable skill and not come back to jail," said Pete Trotman, who is charge of the program that teaches all kinds of skills to the inmates. "That's our goal; that's our bottom line."
For inmate Sanders, work in the garden will not only help him find work after his release, it will help him help lots of other people he suspects will soon do some dirt work of their own.
"Eventually gardening is where it's going to be at," he said. "One of these days, everybody is going to need to know how to garden. You know, as times get harder and we have more and more droughts, more and more personal gardens are going to be beneficial. It's better to grow your own fruits and vegetables."
That's the long view. But these gardeners are getting something valuable out of their work right now, as well.
"The fresh air," said inmate Reginald Calvert, "and just being able to be productive with the vegetables, it's just wonderful. And I'm enjoying every bit of it."
A couple of rows over, Sanders has another take: "You know, you just, you get to get out and it's a little more like freedom; a little less like being in jail. Plus you know you're doing something productive. You're actually getting something done. You're actually doing something that means something more than just saying, 'Oh, well, I'm just sitting here every day.' You're getting something done that makes you feel like you're accomplishing something."
Meanwhile kitchen supervisor Hest gets his own kicks out of the program.
It turns out, inmates like the food from the garden.
"Occasionally, we get compliments on things," he laughed. "The guys do tell us, 'Hey, this was good; keep doing this thing right here.'"
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