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Jail Gardens Are Economically, Emotionally Smart

Jail gardens produce food for prisoners and food banks and provide valuable experience for inmates.


Photo: Rona Proudfoot (Flickr)

The Lorain County Jail in Ohio has yielded tomatoes, peppers, cabbage, beans, peas, and zucchini.

Prisons like the Kerr Country Jail in Texas, the Pittsburgh County Jail in Oklahoma, the Lorain County Jail in Ohio, and the Monroe County Jail in Mississippi all have introduced jail-run gardens.

The Economics Of Gardening

Depending on the garden’s size, a few hundred to a few thousand dollars are spent preparing the land, buying supplies, and erecting a security fence around the garden.

This price is recouped in no time by the amount of food the gardens produce. Smith County Sheriff J.B. Smith is proud to say that the four acre Smith County Jail garden yielded 20 tons of food last year, almost all of which was donated to local food banks. He hopes the garden will produce 25 tons of food this year.

Other programs use the food to feed inmates, which lowers jail costs and provides fresh, healthy food to the prisoners. County Sheriff Andy Hood of the Monroe County Detention Center says his garden will save the jail thousands of dollars a month in food costs.

It’s About More Than Just Food

Prison gardens have many benefits for inmates and overcrowded prisons, too. In some situations, working in the gardens helps prisoners reduce their sentence and thereby freeing up beds at the jails, like in the Kerr County Jail. There inmates receive an extra day of credit toward their sentences for each shift they serve on the garden unit.

Prisoners seem to enjoy working in the gardens and are learning skills that can help them after their sentences are finished. “I’ve been up since 4:30 a.m. waiting for this,” says inmate Michael Yocum of the Kerr County Jail.

“It’s nice to get some fresh air and it breaks up the monotony,” agrees inmate Kyle Coons. “We only get an hour for recreation every three or four days.”

The Family Foundations Program, a San Diego correctional facility that serves as an alternative to state prison for mothers or mothers-to-be, is working leadership roles into their garden. By allowing the inmates to plan and care for the garden, they hope to teach lessons about responsibility, accountability, and well-being while boosting self-esteem.

Short-Sighted Budget Cuts

Unfortunately, not every jail garden receives support.

The Marion County Jail in Oregon has tended a five and a half acre garden for five years, but it will soon be shut down because the state is selling state land that provided the irrigation system for the Marion County jail garden. Naturally, without water, planting was unable to happen this year. The garden had produced over 150,000 pounds of produce for the jail and the local food bank.

“This seems like a penny-wise, pound-foolish chain of events that will eliminate far more benefits to the public than it generates in cost savings,” criticizes journalist Kathi Jaworski.

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Julie Rooney

Julie Rooney is a vegetarian, musician, and artist who primarily works in video and new media. Currently she is the director of Low Road Gallery, a non-profit contemporary art gallery located in Greencastle, Indiana.

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