Garden for Good: Inmates Finding Peace, Helping Community

On about one and one-half acres of fertile Kansas soil, neatly-kept rows of tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, potatoes and other produce greet visitors to the Hutchinson Correctional Facility.

Welcome to the Garden for Good, where 30 inmates — trained as Kansas Master Gardeners — find respite from the harsh realities of life behind bars.

For the past three years, this has been their labor of love. But the Garden for Good is as its name suggests: a symbol of the inmates’ fierce determination to make good with themselves and the local community.

“When I’m in the garden,” says inmate Keith Mathis, “I guess you could say it’s a retreat, away from the animosity, away from the negativity that’s inside the (prison) dorms. It’s not all negativity, but there’s a lot of it, because you know, you’re in prison.

“But you get out here and you put something in the ground, watch it, water it and the next thing you know it’s growing. You’re eating it, you’re taking the seeds and the next year you’re planting seeds that you’ve harvested. It gives you a sense of pride.”

In 2012, the Garden for Good donated more than 6,700 pounds of produce and $2,500 to such community groups as the Christian soup kitchen and the food bank of Reno County. This year, the group set a goal to donate 10,000 pounds of produce, and donate $5,000 to area groups.

“We sell (produce) to the inmates here at a price that is a little less than market value on the street, because a lot of these guys don’t make very much money,” said Gary Robbins, president of the garden’s inmate-only board.

“We put that money back into the garden, and whatever we don’t need for the garden, we donate to local groups such as the local Boys and Girls Club, the local sexual assault center, the food bank, (and) several other places.”

Doug Barr, the administrator for the prison, said that inmates came up with the idea of Garden for Good three years ago. Three inmate groups submitted a proposal in which they promised to raise their own money and do all the work.

The prison’s administration approved the proposal, provided the land, and helped to set up classes with K-State Research and Extension’s Master Gardeners program.

“All of us who have gone through the course are certified Kansas Master Gardeners,” said Victor Mitchell, one of the garden’s original members. Each year, 10-12 inmates are accepted to take the classes, which are taught inside the prison walls by volunteer Extension Master Gardeners.

Mathis likened the Master Gardener classes to a college course. He said the inmates learn how to identify good and bad garden insects; create alternatives to garden chemicals; make compost; take soil samples; and even how to use flowers that attract pests and keep them away from the produce.

“A lot of guys here have never had a garden in their life,” Mitchell said. “They’re probably city kids, but they’re going to have something they can do with their kids and their families when they get out of here.”

Barr notes that some inmates may even get a break when it comes time for a parole hearing. The Master Gardener classes are part of the prison’s program to reward inmates for good behavior.

“Idle time in prison is never a good thing,” he said. “This gives them an opportunity to keep themselves focused and plan toward the future.

“In a prison setting, you don’t get a lot of opportunity to show that you can be productive, other than a classroom setting. So when you come out here and look at this garden, it speaks for itself. All the hard work and dedication these guys spend each day in this garden to keep it up, it’s a huge task.”

Inmates typically work 8-10 hours in prison detail or, in some cases, a private industry job. Only after that do they get time to work in the garden.

The first year, before they had some operating funds, the garden work included hand watering every vegetable plant, often lugging five gallon buckets of water as much as a quarter-mile.

“I’m not going to lie,” Mathis remembers, “there were times when I’m thinking to myself, ‘What are you doing?’ You burn up, you’re hot, you’re sweaty…but you start seeing the produce or you taste a tomato or taste an onion. You see Ms. Murdock from the soup kitchen and you see the smile on her face when you take her a 55-gallon trash can of tomatoes and they are happy.

“It makes you feel good about yourself.”

Robbins credits the 30 inmates who currently work in the garden.

“I think the big thing is that everybody comes out and works their tails off and, every man is really sincere about our donations and what we do for the outside,” he said.

“A couple of them have told me that this was the greatest single thing they’ve accomplished in their life. I say it’s my second, because I have a son, and he’s first. But this garden, other than that, might be the single greatest thing I’ve accomplished. And I’m proud of this more than anything else.”

Adds Mathis: “When I was out on the street, I didn’t do this. It gives me a tool that when I get out, to grow a garden, to help the community, to help the soup kitchen. It’s about me getting better for myself, and getting better for the (community).”

Story by: Pat Melgares