By Ellen Sweets
Photography by Andy Sams
It’s a mild, blue-sky weekday that finds seven men in identical turquoise-and-gray-striped shirts and pants working on nicely banked rows of newly started plants. Their color-coded apparel identifies them as residents of the Travis County Correctional Complex in Del Valle, yet they are unceremoniously doing what hundreds of home gardeners throughout Travis County would be doing by week’s end: preparing a garden—an organic garden at that.
There’s a big difference, of course—these gardeners labor within the confines of a 10-foot chain-link fence topped with coiled razor wire that’s two and a half feet in diameter. As the men rake, shovel and hoe, Pete Trotman surveys what remains of the season’s garden. Trotman supervises the Marketable Skills Program for Travis County—a project designed to provide prisoners opportunities to make a positive change in their lives.
Tall and wiry, Trotman walks through a garden launched in May 2010. By midsummer, it had produced one and a half tons of fruit and vegetables; by September’s end, a bumper crop of jalapeños, serranos and Tabasco peppers left staff scratching their heads trying to figure out how best to use them. And by late October, two and a half acres of new rows had been added that would eventually yield pumpkins, radishes, beets, broccoli, peas, spinach, carrots, winter peas, mustard and collard greens. An acre of now-weary tomato, okra, zucchini, yellow squash, eggplant, cantaloupe and watermelon plants have already been incorporated into meals for the correctional facility’s inmate population. The produce thrives in the dark soil that’s enriched with compost created on the premises, and natural repellents like orange oil and the strategic planting of peppers ward off pests. Seeds are saved and started for new plantings.
“At one point, we had so much okra we asked a cook who was from Louisiana to make gumbo using vegetables from the garden,” Trotman says with a smile. “The prisoners were talking about that meal for weeks.”
And that’s OK with Travis County Sheriff Greg Hamilton, who’d been searching for a way to launch a garden. He’d sought early guidance at the SFC Farmers’ Market–Sunset Valley Farmers Market, where he found Hairston Creek Farms’ Gary Rowland, a certified organic farmer in Burnet County. They struck up a conversation.
“I got involved because Sheriff Hamilton asked me to help, and he’s a hard man to say no to,” Rowland says. “He wanted to know how to get started, so I worked with him and Pete for about six months. Then [I] went out every six weeks or so and talked to the guys about how things were going. It helped that it was old farmland anyway, so it was pretty good soil. We brought in some composted manure to get them started, and they went from there.”
Rowland expressed support for Hamilton’s efforts. “I think [the garden] is a good opportunity to give people with trouble in their lives something positive to do,” he says. It’s a perfect echo of Hamilton’s goal, and then some.
“We wanted to give inmates the opportunity to give back,” Hamilton says. “And it’s therapeutic. It gives them a chance to think about why they’re here, to dig hands in dirt and see something grow from their labor. These men and women need to be working instead of watching people on Jerry Springer throw chairs at one another. I believe that, over time, we’re going to have incarcerated individuals who will get out and start their own gardens and do something constructive with their lives. It can be a win-win situation.”
Hamilton, who has held his current post since 2005, is the first to dismiss those who would accuse him of being soft on criminals. “I tell people that I know I’m not your normal sheriff, but I believe that any sheriff who doesn’t try to help people to be productive is derelict in their duties. Only 7 percent of the people in our facility actually go on to the penitentiary. That means roughly 93 percent are going back into the community. It doesn’t accomplish anything to keep people like caged animals. That old way of thinking that we can keep doing the same thing over and over and get a different result really is insanity. People want to build more prisons…I say let’s come up with some meaningful programs that keep [inmates] from coming back.”
Hamilton hangs his hopes on inmates like Hunter Leadford. Before the infraction that landed him inside the aforementioned fence, he had a garden of his own—only his focused on flowers. “I had a rose garden, including white roses, but this is good too,” he says. “I’m getting to pick jalapeños and play with tomato vines, which I enjoy, and do some planting, which I enjoy not so much. But it’s a lot nicer than being inside all day.”
Since the garden’s inception, an incarcerated population of 2,200 has been fed from its bounty. On any given day, two to twelve inmates might work the field. That number is augmented by work-release participants who report to the Texas Department of Criminal Justice on weekends. Prisoners are primarily in for misdemeanor crimes.
Drawn from a pool of inmate volunteers, potential participants are assessed by a classifications department using a point scale based on several factors, including the nature of their offenses, past behavior and recommendations—the lower the number, the more likely an individual will be accepted into the gardening project. The passing men and women are qualified to become trustees (both men and women work in the gardens, separately), and corrections officer Richard Constancio says, to date, the chosen few have worked out well.
“People get out into the sun and do something positive,” he says. “I think it makes a difference, too, when they know the food they’ve grown and harvested turns up on their plates. It gives them pride in knowing they did it.”
Near the garden plots, a platform holds 16 trays filled with plastic cups, each marked according to the seeds being started. A stone’s throw away sits the skeletal frame for a greenhouse, and across from it stands a shed housing a mound of deteriorating summer garden remnants en route to becoming compost. This does, indeed, mean something to the inmates. A prisoner who chose not to give his name is already looking forward to returning to his home garden where he grew tomatoes, carrots and cabbage.
“I grew up with my grandmother, who grew vegetables, and she never used any chemicals,” he says. “It’s soothing to be outside on a nice day like this and know we’re going to eat what we grow.” His companions nod in agreement.
Food service sergeant Dianne Bratchett sees to it that what the inmates grow becomes a flavorful component of daily meals—no small task when feeding more than 2,000 people three times a day. “When Pete’s crew delivers [the harvest], we look at what’s been delivered from the outside and figure out ways to see where their food fits,” she says. “We put cantaloupe and watermelon on trays at breakfast. Instead of frozen broccoli, we’ll use squash, bell peppers and onions. We might have turkey tetrazzini with broccoli or chicken with an okra, tomato and squash casserole.”
Bratchett, who not only loves fresh vegetables, but likes to cook, says good food makes a difference in morale—which comes back full circle to Sheriff Hamilton and his food philosophy.
“When I was campaigning for this job,” says Hamilton, “I went to a meeting where one man said I was soft on crime. He got up and said, ‘you want to get in a room with all these criminals, hold hands and sing “Kumbaya.”’ And I said that if an inmate comes in here, stays and learns the skills to be a plumber or a carpenter or an accomplished gardener, then yes—I’ll hold hands and sing ‘Kumbaya’ right along with him—especially if he never comes back.”
Travis County Commissioner Sarah Eckhardt is a big supporter of Hamilton’s efforts. “All credit belongs to Sheriff Hamilton, the fine folks at the Travis County Sheriff’s Office and the inmates who volunteered to help make this a reality,” she says. “My role in the project was only to be encouraging as they laid out and executed this inspired plan.”
What’s next for the program? Chickens in a movable coop so inmates can have fresh eggs and the garden will have on-site fertilizer. “What the heck,” Hamilton says. “One of these days we might even have our own cows so inmates can learn butchering skills…if PETA doesn’t pitch a fit.”