Inmates grow food for charity

ST. MARYS – Through a program started in the spring, a group of inmates at the St. Marys Correctional Center raised thousands of pounds of fresh produce for a statewide food bank program.

Patrick Mirandy, warden of the St. Marys facility, estimated that nearly 6,000 pounds of produce were grown by inmates from May through the end of October.

Approximately 4,500 pounds were given to the Mountaineer Food Bank in Gassaway, W.Va., as part of the Harvest Now program. Another 1,500 pounds of produce were used by the St. Marys facility in its kitchens to provide fresh food for the inmates during the growing season.

Mirandy said the program was started last spring at the urging of Brooks Sumberg, founder of Harvest Now in Connecticut. Sumberg had the idea of approaching churches in Connecticut with extra property about growing produce for food bank usage and soon expanded that to correctional facilities, among others.

Sumberg approached the West Virginia Department of Corrections with the idea, backed by Carla Nardella, president of the Mountaineer Food Band, Mirandy said.

The idea was presented to DOC representatives at a leadership conference last spring and there was immediate interest, including from Mirandy.

Mirandy said a quarter-acre site near his office had previously been used as a garden and soon after returning from the conference, a new garden was put in place.

About 20 inmates helped in the initial site preparation, but most of the work and cultivation during the spring, summer and early fall have been done by a group of four inmates.

The participating inmates are from the center’s residential substance abuse treatment unit and were involved in plowing, planting, caring for and picking the vegetables, usually on a daily basis.

The four inmates who did the work this year were David Morgan, Kevin Lloyd, Ernest Tucker and Richard Hatfield.

All four men said they were glad to be involved in the program. None had prior experience with gardening, but all were pleased with the results.

Morgan said he found the gardening work to be relaxing and therapeutic. However, his favorite part was eating the fresh vegetables and produce.

“I like actually planting it, watching it grow, producing something,” he said.

Lloyd said there had already been interest among the inmates to do a small bit of gardening onsite at St. Marys when the idea to grow produce for the food bank program was presented.

“It absolutely went above and beyond anything we were anticipating,” he said, adding the four inmates have put in several hours each day on the gardening program. “There’s been lots of time and a whole lot of effort, a lot of actual caring.

“It’s great, it’s educational, it gives you a sense of purpose. It really helps you to see that there’s something we can do, even inside here,” Lloyd said.

“I’m doing something positive in this community for that community out there,” Tucker said of his own experiences with the garden program at St. Marys.

Hatfield said he has enjoyed working in the garden on a daily basis since it started. He believes it has helped him develop skills that he will be able to take with him in the future. He is looking forward to what might be done with the program in the future.

Throughout this year’s growing season, the St. Marys garden has produced broccoli, tomatoes, peppers of different varieties, cucumbers, squash and zucchini.

Mirandy said the garden got off to a good start after the Future Farmers of America program at St. Marys High School provided hundreds of vegetable plants that had gone unsold by the students at the end of the school year.

The facility and the participating inmates also received assistance from the West Virginia University Extension Service in Pleasants County with advice and training regarding plant care and cultivation.

Mirandy said plans are already being made to continue and expand the program next spring.

The DOC was approached to participate in the program in mid-spring and it was in May when work on the garden program at St. Marys got underway, which shortened the amount of growing time available this year.

Looking ahead, he wants to get some of the preparation work started as early as February, so the full growing season will be available. There are other sites on the facility grounds where the gardening can be expanded, including at least one hillside which will be good for melons or other ground fruit.

Lawrence Messina, communications director for the West Virginia Department of Military Affairs and Public Safety and the WVDOC, said inmates at several state facilities participated in the program this year, along with St. Marys. The other facilities included the Beckley Correctional Center in Raleigh County, the Denmar Correctional Center in Pocahontas County, the Huttonsville Correctional Center in in Randolph County and the Pruntytown Correctional Center in Taylor County.

The Parkersburg Correctional Center (PBCC), in the former Parkersburg Holiday Inn at the U.S. 50/Interstate 77 interchange, participated in the program this year.

Anne Thomas, the warden at Parkersburg, said the facility raised and donated approximately 300 pounds of vegetables this year. The garden is on facility grounds with the inmates at PBCC providing the daily maintenance.

“I feel this program is benefiting the community and also beneficial for the inmates at Parkersburg Correctional Center,” Thompson said of the gardening program, adding she hopes to continue it next year.

According to the Mountaineer Food Bank, DOC facilities provided an estimated 10,000 pounds of produce this past season to the program, which helps food pantries, kitchens and similar programs in 48 of the 55 counties.

Mirandy believes the garden program has had a positive impact, both at the St. Marys facility and in the state at large through the Mountaineer Food Bank. He hopes to provide more food for local food bank programs in the St. Marys area in the future through the center’s garden.

“We received thanks from the Mountaineer Food Bank,” he said. “They came up every Monday and picked it up. They told us what a service we’re providing.”

Mirandy said he is aware of plans at other DOC facilities in the state to expand their gardening activities or join the program as new participants next year.