Fresh produce, fresh start for Salt Lake County inmates
When Kevin Long and George Raska talk about their daily routine, they interrupt each other with excitement. They mention the sunshine, the healthy food, the educational opportunities, the trust not exactly what you'd expect to hear from a couple of inmates at a county jail.
But, as Sgt. Michael Johnson said, the Salt Lake County Jail's horticulture program "is about as different as you can get" when it comes to the realm of corrections.
The Excellence in Gardening program, which consists of 10 hours of class time and months of hands-on experience, is designed to instill in inmates a work ethic and teach them job skills as they maintain the jail's 1.5-acre organic garden. The inmates maintain the garden in shifts, with half of them working in the morning and the other half taking over in the afternoon. Only minimum-security, nonviolent offenders are selected for the program.
The inmates receive initial training from Katie Wagner, an assistant professor at Utah State University's extension program, and two horticulturists help guide them through their daily tasks. Other than that, the inmates are responsible for the upkeep of the garden. They pull weeds, amend the soil, monitor the irrigation system, identify and eliminate pests, harvest the produce and sell it at the Downtown Farmers Market on Saturdays.
Raska, who was incarcerated in January, has worked in the garden for just over a month and gushes about it at every opportunity.
"It's a great program," he said. "It really is. There's freedom involved. You feel like a regular human being, not just an inmate. Plus I'm paying back my debt to society, and that's the most important thing."
Long, who has been in jail for four months and in the horticulture program for two, echoed those sentiments.
"All the sergeants, all the officers, they're great when they come out here with us," Long said. "It really does make you feel more like a man out here to be entrusted with this responsibility. This is the one program desired by every inmate. This is the program that everyone wants to be in, and there's only 16 of us out of 2,300."
Long said he initially thought the garden was a myth, and he and Raska were thrilled when they were selected for the program. Without it, they would have to endure a life more typically associated with jail life.
"It's almost like the movie 'Groundhog Day,' " Raska said of jail. "If you don't have a good job assignment, you just have to try to find a way to fill all those hours on a daily basis. It's a pretty monotonous routine."
"Sometimes it is really difficult to find something to entertain your mind," Long said. "That's why it's such a blessing to come out here."
While the gardening is therapeutic for the inmates, Wagner said the most rewarding part of the program for her is watching them interact with community members at the Farmers Market.
"These guys, the first time they go to the Farmers Market, they're really nervous," Wagner said. "Can you imagine showing up at the Farmers Market wearing a prisoner's outfit, being in this community setting? They're really a little bit nervous and they're worried about how the community is going to treat them, how they're going to perceive them being there. And then they just get embraced and people are so happy to see them and they come up and engage them and they compliment them on what they're doing."
Raska agreed that the community interaction is important.
"There's a lot of preconceived notions about jail and being locked up, but I think it maybe does away with those myths that we're all bad people," he said.
"We're people, too," Long added. "We just made some bad choices."
To help the inmates recover from those bad choices, the jail started the horticulture program in 2007. It was eliminated for several years after budget cuts, but it was brought back in 2011. The jail enlisted Wagner's help, and, since then, the garden has become more and more complex each year.
The first year Wagner was involved, the inmates grew a basic crop of beans, corn, pumpkins and potatoes. In 2012, the program expanded, bumping the inventory up to 50 crops. It has become even more ambitious this summer, with 80 crops on the menu. The inmates continue to grow the basics from the 2011 season, but Wagner said it's their inclusion of unusual items, such as dried heirloom beans and lemon grass, that helps make the garden financially successful.
"One of the ways we can really set this program aside so that we're not in such direct competition with some of those other growers [at the Farmers Market] is to try to grow some things that are a little more unique and outside the box," Wagner said. "We try to grow things that other people aren't growing already."
This strategy has helped provide the community with rare crops while also boosting the garden's sales, which go back into the jail's general funds budget. The program made about $16,000 at the Farmers Markets in 2012, and with Saturday sales around three to four times higher this summer, Sgt. Johnson expects this year's total to greatly exceed that mark.
He stresses that making money is not the point of the program.
"It's all about trying to help these guys out," Johnson said, "and trying to give them a leg up so that they don't have to keep coming back here."
Raska, 37, and Long, 34, say they are determined not to return to jail once they get their fresh start. They both received one-year sentences Raska for possession of methamphetamine and attempted robbery; Long for possession of stolen property but thanks to good behavior, they will be released Oct. 26.
On the outside, Raska said he wants to go to school and eventually become a counselor. Long isn't sure what career field he wants to get into, but he does plan to use the skills he has learned in the horticulture program.
"I'm definitely going to plant my own garden," Long said. "I've got a baby boy on the way, and unfortunately I'm watching the pregnancy through the glass. But he [will be] born in September and I'm out in October. I'll have a lot of things to teach him and my whole family. These are things I never thought I'd be learning, but I'm really thankful for the opportunity."