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Inmate gardens are sprouting savings for Oklahoma sheriffs

The Oklahoma County sheriff's office has started a garden which is planted and maintained by inmates to help feed the county jail population.
BY ANN KELLEY akelley@opubco.com Published: July 18, 2011

— Michael Lee plunges his shovel into the earth, turning the ground to expose the rich soil.

Perspiration drips from under the 62-year-old's cap and settles around the damp collar of his T-shirt. His shoes are caked with dirt, and his work gloves worn at the palms.

Still, working in the garden in 102-degree heat suits him better than sitting in an air-conditioned jail cell with 15 other inmates, he said.

Lee is one of the inmates at the Oklahoma County jail helping transform nearly 3 weed-infested acres into a garden that will supply the jail with fresh produce.

Work on the garden began in May on county-owned property adjacent to a sheriff's office substation in Midwest City.

Sheriff John Whetsel said the garden is intended to be a money-saver for the jail's food budget, while providing work for inmates who want to earn time off their sentences for good behavior.

Worker program

The inmates are nonviolent, low-risk offenders who are part of Whetsel's Inmate Worker Program. So far, there's been no shortage of volunteers for the garden, he said.

“Most of them have never gardened before, but they're learning a skill that hopefully they take with them when they're gone,” Whetsel said.

Lee said he grew up a country boy in rural Cleveland County, but he had never gardened.

“I've learned this much: It takes more than a shovel, a hoe and rake,” he said with a smile. “It's hard, hard work, but I sleep good at night.”

Whetsel said the plan is to grow corn, watermelon, tomatoes, okra, onions, carrots and anything else the soil will support. He said he's relying on employees and inmates who know about gardening and gets advice from the Oklahoma County Extension Service.

He said the seed money for the garden is less than $200, and it eventually will save him thousands.

Budding idea

Inmate agriculture programs, including beef and dairy production, have been ongoing for decades in the state prison system. Crops grown by state Corrections Department inmates were so plentiful they once stopped growing fruits and vegetables because too much spoilage was occurring.

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Most of them have never gardened before, but they're learning a skill that hopefully they take with them when they're gone.”

Sheriff John Whetsel

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