Jailhouse crop: Inmates get sense of purpose - and dinner - from vegetable gardening

William Lunny, his hair grown long and his skin tanned from the summer sun, stands among the 74 tomato plants he's nursed since May with a quiet pride.

Lunny's eyes are a bright, piercing blue, but his gaze is unsteady and quick. He wears a white T-shirt and loose gray shorts, the same outfit he wears every day.

"They'll ripen in a week," Lunny, 32, says during an interview on July 9. Streaks of orange are beginning to show on the developing fruit. "Once they start getting red, there's going to be cases upon cases."

The tomato plants fit tightly on a long, narrow section of land between a storage shed and a tall, curving wire fence.

As Lunny tends to the plants, he can see the dormitory quarters of the Howard County Detention Center, where he has lived for the past year.

Starting in late April, Lunny and a handful of other minimum-security inmates began digging up rocks, laying soil and planting the tomato vines as a part of the detention center's inmate gardening program.

"At another time, this was nothing but rocks and weeds back here," says Howard County Department of Corrections Director Jack Kavanagh as he squints from the bright sun. Kavanagh says the gardening program establishes a routine and sense of purpose for participating inmates.

The program was a 2009 innovation that began with flowers outside the jail's entrance and has since grown to include two vegetable gardens with corn, cucumber, pepper, squash and tomato plants. Additionally, inmates have erected three flagpoles and landscaped the parking lot area.

Thirsty plants

In the spiking summer heat, the vegetables are thirsty and need to be watered at least twice a day. Though inmates have some say over their gardening schedule, they need permission and supervision as they plant.

"The hardest part is watering," Lunny says. "You have to get on them to get you out here and water."

A little over a year ago, on June 27, Lunny, a Pennsylvania native, was arrested for selling Psilocybin, more commonly known as mushrooms, at a Phish concert at Merriweather Post Pavilion, in Columbia.

Officers at the concert witnessed a shirtless Lunny sell a small package of the hallucinogen to a concert-goer for $45, according to charging documents. Inside his car, they found multiple bags containing drugs and $2,759 in cash.

A year later, Lunny is putting to practice the skills his grandfather, a farmer, taught him as a kid.

"I've (farmed) since I was a child," Lunny explains as he directs two other inmates, asking one to pick ripe cucumbers and another to water the corn.

Richard Jarrett, 54, never was much of a gardener until he went to jail.

Jarrett was arrested on July 22, 2010, for stealing computer equipment from Elkridge Elementary School. According to charging documents, Jarrett told police he had been driving by when he noticed an open door and decided to take advantage of the opportunity.

"I was stupid," he told police then.

Since then, Jarrett has wised up about a few things — most notably, gardening. Now, he knows the number of tomatoes on a single plant (eight to 15, he says), how to fertilize crops and how often to water them.

"I've done more since I've been here than I probably would have done on my own," explains Jarrett, who is serving a one-year sentence. "You get out here, you get into doing this, and you forget where you are."

A sense of purpose

Correctional Officer Michael Barnes, who supervises the gardening program, says participating inmates get a sense of purpose from gardening.

"They feel better about themselves because they feel like they've done something with their day," he explains.

According to Kavanagh, only low-security inmates nearing their release dates can participate in the program.

Obtaining a minimum-security status isn't easy. Only 25 of the detention center's 320 inmates are currently classified as such, and only about six work in the gardens.

To date, no one has abused the program, Kavanagh says.

Once picked, the vegetables are incorporated into the detention center's meals and salad bar. Many of the flowers were donated by staff members, Kavanagh says, and the rest were purchased with grant funds.

The program is one of the more popular ones offered by the detention center, according to Kavanagh.

"You have a choice of sitting in a housing unit where there's not a lot to do and the day goes slow, versus you can go outside, and get some fresh air and sunshine, and see the results of your hard work," Kavanagh says.

For Lunny, the choice was an easy one.

"I like doing this: It gets me out, and it's enjoyable," he says. "It's better than spending the day inside."

Jarrett says the gardening program has given him a sense of direction while in prison.

"It makes you feel better about yourself," he explains. "This is structure in your day, it makes you feel productive."

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