MIDWEST CITY — 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.
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.
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.
The program was brought back in 2009 when a small plant was built to process, freeze and ship the homegrown produce to prisons across the state. T
he first year it was in production, the plant processed more than 160,000 pounds of produce, according to Corrections Department publications.
This year, inmates grew broccoli, cabbage, carrots, melon, tomatoes, onions, potatoes, green beans and pinto beans.
Whetsel joins several sheriffs in the state who have started inmate gardening programs, or are seriously considering it.
Sheriffs in Haskell, Grady and Pittsburg counties report having had successful gardens this year.
Pittsburg County Sheriff Joel Kerns said they planted 6 acres this spring and have grown enough produce to feed the 200 inmates in his jail, a juvenile detention center, a mental health center and a battered women's shelter. It's been so plentiful that they've given about 400 pounds away to seniors, and their 100 tomato plants are only now ready to harvest, he said.
“We consume what we can consume, but it's just too much,” Kerns said.
Kerns said the garden hasn't been without its troubles, but so far they've overcome them. He said water wells they intended to use quickly ran dry with the drought, so they rigged an irrigation system from a nearby ditch to their fields.
They also learned that while the inmates love the fresh corn and okra, they detest radishes.
Kerns said he hears compliments and positive comments exchanged among the inmates about the fresh fruits and vegetables.
“It's a great source of pride for the guys that work in it,” Kerns said.
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