Prison food has never enjoyed a great reputation. But the quarter million pounds of produce grown annually by inmates at the United States Penitentiary at Leavenworth just might change that. It's fresh, free, feeds the less fortunate and even has helped inmates get good jobs after being released -- all without costing taxpayers a nickel.
Wait. A prison farm?
Believe it or not, an ecologically responsible one. Carefully screened volunteer inmates from Leavenworth's minimum-security prison camp are allowed outside the secure perimeter to grow tomatoes, potatoes, sweet corn, watermelon, onions, radishes and other crops. Prisoners who work on the farm are serving time for a variety of non-violent crimes, including wire fraud, mail fraud and embezzlement.
Last year more than 80,000 pounds of produce grown by prisoners went to help feed the needy throughout the greater Kansas City area. This year, estimates put donated produce at up to 200,000 pounds.
Joe Mason, Leavenworth's food service manager, started the prison's Therapy and Mentor Horticulture program in 2008 with groundskeeper and garden supervisor Don Sargent.
By law, the U.S. Bureau of Prisons cannot use federal money for community programs. But Mason had an idea that made the farm possible. He designed it to be funded by outside donations and brought the idea to Brian Habjan, a Leavenworth banker who was at the time also president of the Leavenworth Chamber of Commerce.
Habjan, seeing the potential benefit for the community, became head of fundraising for the farm. He also researched its history.
"The prison had a sustaining farm that went back to the turn of the century," Habjan said. "It produced dairy and vegetables. They did that until somewhere in the '80s, then it went away. Farming became hard, and there were some drought years.
"One warden didn't feel it was a program they should continue. But four years ago they started growing food again for the prisoners. It went so well they decided to expand the program."
Virtually all equipment used for the farm is donated or is free government surplus. The seeds are also donated by a Leavenworth domestic violence shelter, the Alliance Against Family Violence, and funded by civic groups, including the Leavenworth Lions Club. Debbie Weaverling, president of the club, said a member named Sam Maxwell brought the prison garden to her attention.
"What they produce is phenomenal," Weaverling said. "We're so happy to be part of the program."
The way Mason sees it, a prison farm just makes sense.
"Everybody wins," he said. "The environment wins. The institution wins. The inmates win. The community wins. Everybody's winning here."
The Leavenworth prison farm is a model of ecological responsibility. The prison composts food waste. Then, through an inmate-run system known as vermiculture (or worm farming), that compost is eaten by thousands of red wiggler worms. The worms, through natural processes, then change the waste into rich, organic soil and liquid fertilizer that Mason calls "black gold."
"If you were to buy that on the street, you're talking 30 bucks a quart or more," Mason said.
Watering is responsible as well. Last year the prison captured 700,000 gallons of rainwater to use on the farm.
The farm benefits the prison, as the produce feeds the entire prison population. That's money that doesn't have to be spent buying food elsewhere. And the farm provides healthy activity while giving inmates a chance to give back, and it doesn't cost the prison a thing.
Mason set up the prison's horticulture apprenticeship program so that inmates can receive education credits through the Department of Labor. He is passionate about helping them rebuild their lives.
"(Most people) have a perception that it's just lock 'em up and throw away the key," he said. "I don't look at it like that. I think we should train these inmates. Give them skills. Let them take them with them, and not come back."
For two inmates who finished the horticulture program and have now been released, that's exactly what has happened.
"One's in Des Moines," Mason said. "He used his apprenticeship program to get a job with a big chemical company and is now making $80,000 a year. And it's all from the education he got here. Another got a job as the manager of a landscaping company."
Sargent, the groundskeeper, said the experience can help prisoners in many ways.
"They're learning how to grow things, and it's a newfound interest for them," he said. "We teach them that even if they don't do this for a living when they are released, they can do it to supplement their income by growing their own food."
Prison officials declined requests for inmate interviews, citing privacy laws.
John Groves, a former prison employee, now coordinates the pickup and delivery of the produce to food pantries and other agencies as a Salvation Army volunteer.
He has seen the effect the food has had for the needy.
"Fresh produce at the grocery store is very expensive," he said. "We've had ladies who have come (to pick up free produce) and said they didn't know what they would do without this program.
"You see people come down in wheelchairs or walkers, or with friends who help them carry the vegetables back to their apartment. They can take as much as they want until it's gone. It's making a huge difference in their lives, because they probably wouldn't be getting fresh produce otherwise."
Sister Jane Albert Mehrens, a member of Sisters of Charity of Leavenworth and outreach coordinator for the Alliance Against Family Violence, agreed.
"The program is marvelous and well needed," she said. "And it's needed even more now than it has been in the past because needs are greater, food (cost) is higher and (people) are not making any more money. There are lots of drop-off places where people in need can go and get it without lots of gas or hassle, and the food is extremely healthful. I just think it's wonderful."
"The biggest thing for us is that the public realize that this is at no cost to the taxpayers," camp administrator Tom Sheldrake said. "This is all done through donations, volunteer work and prison labor."
The program makes Mason proud.
"Three weeks ago I got a phone call," he said, his voice cracking as he stopped to compose himself. "He said, 'Are you Joe Mason?' I said, 'yes.' He goes, 'I'd like to donate some tomato plants and some bell pepper plants to your program through my church.' And I said, 'Well, I'll have to do the paperwork, but yeah, you can donate.'
"So I go to this (man's) house. It doesn't have electricity or indoor plumbing. But he was one of the families that got produce last year from the program, and he and his wife wanted to give something back. ... He couldn't afford the basics, and yet they wanted to give back to the program. That is a success story."
LEAVENWORTH PRISON FARM BY THE NUMBERS
Acres of prison land on which crops are grown
Minimum-security inmates who volunteer full time on the farm
Minimum-security inmates who volunteer part time on the farm
Hours inmates volunteered on the farm last year
Varieties of fruits and vegetables raised last year
MORE PRISON FARM NUMBERS
Amount donated for seeds every year by the Leavenworth Lions Club
Pounds of produce harvested last year to feed prisoners and the needy
Pounds of produce distributed last year to the needy
People who received free produce from the prison farm last year
Estimated grocery store value of the produce given to the needy
To reach James A. Fussell, call 816-234-4460 or send email to [email protected].
McClatchy-Tribune News Service