Tending the yard
University of Maine Cooperative Extension has partnered with the Maine State Prison in Warren to provide horticulture skill training to inmates. It is part of the prison’s reinvigorated agriculture program that provides food for the facility and local food pantries, cuts costs for the prison and state, and assists inmates in developing employable job skills.
The horticulture training program started back in 2001 as a training program for inmates that were looking to develop job skills. We decided that training inmates, or people that were incarcerated, with developing skills that they could actually come out with and go into an industry that was looking for labor, was a really good idea.
We teach everything from composting, to vegetable varieties, to soil health, to landscape design at some point in time, to just trying to give them the basic skills that they would need to go into the landscape nursery industry.
Currently we have 20 or so inmates that are employed in the composting, recycling and agricultural program, and I think it’s going well at this point.
Capt. Ryan Fries: In the gardening program that they’re running here, we have 10 people assigned to it. They have to go through a job application process and be vetted by the unit that they’re in. Then they’re handpicked by the team and myself, to make sure that we get good fits into the gardening program.
It’s changed from mostly ornamentals, to now we’re focusing on producing food for the prison itself. Also, any excess food is going to food banks.
We have a multitude of different crops. We have tomatoes, peppers, string beans, cabbage, a lot of lettuce and greens, like beet greens, collard greens. What we do is we harvest that, bring it to the kitchen, then they go and they use it throughout the different meal cycles.
We have 950 inmates here, so we’re doing about 3,000 meals a day. Everything we produce we can consume very quickly. There’s no real storage issues. We eat it fairly quickly.
It’s nice to reduce a little bit of the tax burden and the inmates are doing the work themselves. I think there’s an expectation on the outside, from a taxpayer standpoint, that the inmates are gainfully employed and they’re raising some of their food. It satisfies all those needs.
Capt. Ryan Fries:
It really does help the whole attitude in here. It makes everything a smoother‑running operation, which makes it easier for security and better for them.
Anytime you can keep the inmates busy, their hands busy, their minds are busy thinking about that they’re doing. The incidence of behavior has changed dramatically amongst people that have taken this program. There are less incidents of demerits or behavioral issues inside for this group. It’s therapeutic for them. It gives them a purpose to be there.
There’s been a lot of different benefits. Number one, as far as being locked up in a maximum-security prison, being out here and allowed to do horticulture and gardening, it’s awesome. I couldn’t ask a for a better thing to do. I’m very grateful and honored to be able to be part of it.
Everybody looks forward to the cucumbers, the tomatoes, the fresh onions, and the salads. It’s pretty cool, yeah.
It shows you good working skills with others. It shows you what you could do in your free time. It’s also an outlet.
Being able to work on something, actually seeing it grow, and care for it. Not worrying about just yourself, it kind of relaxes you.
It’s important for people to have a reason to get out of bed and have some meaning in their life. We have a canine program. We have the wood shop. We have other jobs that people do here.
They find that the agricultural program is meaningful, purposeful work. They’re able to make a little bit of money and help pay off the restitution, pay any fines or anything that they owe on the outside. It’s a win for everyone.
Mark’s been critical to the success of the program here. He’s been dedicated to this for a couple decades now. He coordinates the classes, teaches the classes to the men, primarily in the winter preparing for the spring plating season. He also gives us a lot of advice. He stops by every other week.
Capt. Ryan Fries:
His years of experience, he can come and he can point out an issue and tell us what the problem is, and give us a solution that we can work on, and he makes it fit our environment, which is super. A lot of people come in and give ideas, comments, but they don’t realize that we’re working inside of a prison system. He’s been just tremendous.
Really, the primary person of the Maine State Prison is to make sure that we reduce recidivism, reduce the frequency that somebody comes back to prison. I think that the agricultural program goes a long ways to calming them and making them feel proud of something that they’re doing.
The whole mentorship of an individual that’s gardening here, to be able to spend time with a guy like Mark, is priceless really, to be able to talk. They can see the example of a good man and a good man that makes a difference in the community. Very meaningful.
A lot of these people have not had success in their lives. To be able to watch them have success and the joy that they get out of the success of planting and seeing things come in blossom, whether it be flowers or harvesting fruit. One of the first things they tell me now is how many pounds of vegetables they have put into either the food bank or into the kitchen. They are so proud of that.
It’s really a pleasure for me to see them have that success, and be proud of what they’re doing. It’s humbled me in a lot of ways because I know that the situations that they’re in for probably 20 out of the 24 hours, it’s not a pleasant place. But the four hours that they actually get to garden is something that they look forward to. I’m just really pleased to be a part of that.