The Garden Behind Bars

Nathan Mlakar fills planting bags with potting soil as part of his morning of work in the jail garden. The bags, which come in a variety of sizes, provide even more room to grow vegetables and herbs and can be easily moved from sun to shade as necessary.
Debra Moore

  With $8,000 in seed money, literally, Victoria Metcalf’s three-year dream to plant a garden at the county jail has come to fruition.

  In March there was nothing but asphalt, but now there are three greenhouses; 71 planting beds filled with vegetables, herbs and flowers; and 23 fruit trees.

  Metcalf and Jail Commander Chad Hermann hope this is just the beginning.

  “I would like to make this a project that’s self-sustaining,” Hermann said.

  That would mean using the food to feed the inmates, as well as selling excess produce and pouring the proceeds back into the program.

  And even though the financial possibilities are important to Hermann, they’re not what’s driving the program.

  “The biggest thing is inmate attitudes,” Hermann said. “Eventually we would like to make it accessible to all inmates. They have enjoyed it. It gets them outside.”

  The jail is no longer just a holding place for inmates awaiting sentencing — more inmates are serving their sentences at the jail — and the focus is rehabilitation.

  “There’s been a total swing in the mentality of the jail staff,” Hermann said. “It’s an education for all of us. We are trying to revamp our criminal justice system.”

  Metcalf, who is the county’s literacy coordinator, has offered classes in the jail for the past few years beginning with two hours one day a week, and then two hours three days a week, and now there are classes held daily.

  Soon there will be new classes tailored for the garden program, which has been dubbed “The Garden Behind Bars” with the slogan “Produce so good — it’s almost a crime.”

  Hermann wants to work with Feather River College so that inmates can receive credit in horticulture. Ultimately he would like to expand the garden project into a full culinary arts program.

  He envisions canning the fruits and vegetables for year-round use in the jail as well as procuring blemished produce, which would otherwise be discarded, and creating soup bases for the elderly and community suppers.

  He talked about serving the community and said, “I have no issue taking the inmates to the Catholic church in Portola and serving supper.”

  The inmates, at least those who have been working in the garden, would like to serve.

  Richard Edmiston and Nathan Mlakar have watched the garden grow from seeds to first harvest.

  Edmiston said he is grateful to have the opportunity. “Your mind is in a better place when you can go out and do a job.”

  That could be anything from planting seeds, to watering and weeding the beds, to trimming the plants.

  “Vicky’s the boss,” Mlakar said. On a recent morning Metcalf asked him to fill grow bags with soil so that more vegetables could be planted.

  Like Edmiston, Mlakar likes the opportunity to get outside and do something productive.

  As he described the work, he walked toward a bed planted with peas and pulled aside the foliage to reveal a small pod. Part of the reward for working in the garden is a bite of fresh produce.

  Soon there will be a lot to choose from. In addition to peas, there are heirloom tomatoes, a variety of pole beans, squash, zucchini, eggplant, carrots, potatoes, turnips, beets, lettuce, spinach, radishes, pumpkins and more. There are also apple, peach, pear, plum and apricot trees among the 23 fruit trees waiting to bear fruit.

  Even if the garden does become profitable one day, the inmates would not receive any compensation, unlike their counterparts in state prison who can earn a nominal hourly wage for their work.

  “I don’t want the money,” Edmiston said. “We get benefits; we get sunlight.”

  But Hermann acknowledges the work that the inmates do. When county budget cuts forced the jail to streamline its operation, it impacted the kitchen. As one cost-cutting measure, the jail began buying real potatoes instead of a packaged product, which is more costly.

  “We have plenty of free labor to peel potatoes,” he said and applauded the inmates’ work ethic. “The inmates work just as hard as my officers.”

  And even though less money is being spent on food, Hermann said the quality is better because fewer processed foods are being purchased.

  “We’re also changing the commissary to more health-oriented foods; there are a lot of changes going on,” Hermann said.

  Metcalf hopes those changes will include another large greenhouse capable of holding six to eight towers, which would greatly expand the growing opportunities.

  Hermann has no doubt that the program will grow. With regard to Metcalf, he said, “She’s done an absolutely fantastic job; it’s going to get bigger.”

  Metcalf had hoped to receive a $100,000 grant to get started, but when that didn’t happen she didn’t want to delay another year and took an $8,000 award and bought seeds.

  Using surplus lumber from Quincy Tow, she found an inmate who was a contractor by trade and asked him to build the greenhouses and the planting beds.

  “He did an incredible job,” she said.

  She supplemented the surplus wood with supplies from American Valley Hardware and Mountain Building Supply.

  She buys certified supersoil from local providers and prohibits the use of pesticides. “This is as close to organic as you can get,” she said of the jail’s garden.

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