Military inmates grow a new start in a horticulture program designed to prepare them for rewarding work in the green industry.
Hidden away in a wood line of evergreens, behind a maze of 12-foot-high security fences with razor-wire tops, where few might expect to find any good, lies a garden chock full of life and color. The men who tend to it – soldier prisoners incarcerated for violating military law – take deep pride in raising quality fruits and vegetables from its soil.
They await the day when they’ll return to the normal world outside their enclosed perimeter, but until then, they find solace in their own personal 22- by 26-foot plots of produce – corn, green beans, peas, Tabasco peppers, cucumbers, squash, zucchini, cabbage, cherry tomatoes, mushrooms, watermelon, strawberries, even Swiss chard. Many of the crops are good enough to be offered in grocery store food stands.
“See?” one of them boasts, striding toward his fellow inmates on a recent morning of harvesting, holding high a plump Spanish onion he’s just pulled from his garden.
“That’s a nice one!” says Charles Kentfield Jr., who, for the past two years, has taken prisoners at the Northwest Joint Regional Correctional Facility on Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Washington, under his wing to study gardening and farming. “That’s a gem!” he says. “You could eat that, and it would be sweet like an apple.”
Educating for the future
Kentfield, who works for Clover Park Technical College in Lakewood, Wash., leads a horticulture program in the prison’s yard where, each weekday, he teaches and encourages a small group of prisoners to harness their inner green thumb.
The training – nothing like any Army training they’ve ever had – is just one of a small handful of vocational programs the jail offers, to include carpentry and work in the facility’s barber shop. Participants for the horticulture program, however, are carefully selected based on previous offenses and whether they’ve displayed violence at any point in time. And the inmates in Kentfield’s group, the staff at the facility resounds, have the least disciplinary issues of the nearly 125 service members at the prison.
Charles Kentfield Jr., the head of a horticulture program at the Northwest Joint Regional Correctional Facility on Joint Base Lewis-McChord, donates vegetables grown by inmate trainees to the Thurston County Food Bank in downtown Olympia, Wash.
U.S. Army photo by Sgt. Christopher M. Gaylord
His instruction, which typically takes place in a greenhouse outside the prison, is part of a yearlong curriculum during which the inmates earn 11 certificates from the college and learn about small farming equipment, diesel engines, landscape construction, nursery management, and plant propagation and identification, among other things agricultural. They learn to properly sharpen gardening tools, to use chainsaws, tillers and tractors. They even learn a little about business.
The group – currently, there are 16 – comes out to the garden at 8 a.m. and spends at least seven hours with Kentfield.
“I try to make it as real as college can possibly be,” says Kentfield, who designed the curriculum with staff from Clover Park. “I expect a lot out of them.”
He found out about the job from a friend while working as a heavy equipment mechanic. When he came on board, he found little more than two empty greenhouses with bare shelves, a dismal sight for any green thumb. “We didn’t have anywhere to call home,” he adds.
Freshly picked Spanish onions were part of a recent food bank donation of vegetables. The inmates have produced more than 1,500 pounds of vegetables for the Thurston County Food Bank in downtown Olympia, Wash., since they began harvesting their gardens in June. Top left, a greenhouse on the grounds of the Northwest Joint Regional Correctional Facility on Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Wash., was turned into a classroom two years ago under a horticulture program in which inmates learn some of the ins and outs of gardening and farming. Of a small handful of vocational training programs offered by the jail, the horticulture program boasts the least disciplinary issues.
He and his first few students held class in the prison’s carpentry shop and in its chapel when there wasn’t room in the shop. “When you’re trying to build a team, and you’re trying to build it with a team atmosphere, you’ve got to have your stuff,” he says. So the group set out to make a place of its own. Kentfield taught his students to pour concrete, and they laid out a stone pathway in the houses. They also constructed irrigation systems for the buildings.
Each inmate in the horticulture program is assigned a 22- by 26-foot plot where wildflowers are grown-and where horticulture skills are honed. Left, a watermelon grows in a large garden on the grounds of the Northwest Joint Regional Correctional Facility on Joint Base Lewis-McChord, where inmates in the horticulture program cultivate quality corn, green beans, peas, cucumbers, Spanish onions, green onions, cherry tomatoes, mushrooms, Swiss chard, watermelon, strawberries, and zucchini and other produce.
“It started to snowball, basically,” Kentfield explains. “Once we started getting stuff grown in here and really getting their attention, they really enjoy growing plants out here.”
Now, two years later, the houses are full – one with desks, chairs, textbooks, work gloves and notebooks, and the other with plants and flowers of all different varieties.
“Is this the best use for a greenhouse?” Kentfield asks, admiring the inside of the greenhouse the group uses as a classroom. “No. But it’s ours.”
Outside are plots where each inmate grows his own produce. And across the yard, along the fence line, is a seed farm for Northwest prairie plants, an area that Kentfield said more resembles tall, dry, dead grass but is actually used by the Department of Public Works to plant throughout training areas and ranges on JBLM in spots where military vehicles and artillery have destroyed the ground.
As part of their most recent undertaking, Kentfield and his students began providing vegetables to the Thurston County Food Bank in downtown Olympia, Wash., in July. So far, they have donated more than 1,500 pounds of food.
Twice each week, the prisoners proudly pull their best vegetables from their plots, wash them off and immediately pile bags full of them onto wheelbarrows. Within two hours, the freshly harvested produce is on the shelves of the local food bank, ready for families to take their pick.
A variety of wildflowers is just a small part of a large garden that recently doubled in size under a horticulture program in which inmates learn some of the ins and outs of gardening and farming. The garden is broken into separate 22- by 26-foot plots-one for each prisoner.
“That’s what you did with your local family garden when you had extra, you loaded it up in the car and took it down to the food bank,” says Kentfield, who packs the vegetables into the trunk of his sedan and delivers them personally. “The first thing they told us is that fresh produce has been their most limiting factor,” he continues. “And even the produce that they get a lot of times is stuff that has gone past its expiration date in the grocery store.”
But Kentfield’s garden, which reflects eight months of growth, is full of towering corn, colorful wild flowers and neat rows of healthy crops. The area is a flourishing testament to the lessons he has taught his students, not only in agriculture, but also in life.
“You have to grow from the seed, to start, to maturity, not just in plants and ideas, but in every aspect of your life,” a prisoner who has participated in the program for the past 15 months said in a written statement.
The horticulture program at the Northwest Joint Regional Correctional Facility on Joint Base Lewis-McChord, designed by Clover Park Technical College in Lakewood, Wash., earns the prisoners 11 different certificates over a year of learning.
His previous experience with plants was short-lived: At 10, he attempted to grow a geranium, and it died in a week. When the inmate arrived to the prison more than a year ago, he didn’t know what horticulture was and didn’t care. But it’s horticulture that has given him a second chance in life. “That is the true gift every student takes away from this program,” he says. “A chance at a clean slate, an open ear to listen, and new insights on all of life’s problems.”
“I try to stress a lot just being a good person – just being good people, and trusting that if you do good things good things will come back to you,” explains Kentfield, whose biggest concern when inmates prepare for release is ensuring they have strong resumes. “It’s simple living. I guess that’s the best way to say it. Being a good person, living simply, being happy.
“I want it to be like it is on the outside for them. I want them to be accountable for what goes on and understand what professionalism really is.”
Sgt. Christopher M. Gaylord is a writer and photographer currently stationed with the 5th Mobile Public Affairs Detachment on Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Wash. The 5th MPAD is a 20-man unit whose primary mission is to provide print and broadcast products for both internal and external use. The unit deploys wherever the nation’s military men and women go, telling the story of our Armed Forces. Sgt. Gaylord joined the Army out of high school, has been in for more than six years and has always served in the public affairs career field. He can be reached at CMGaylord1988@aol.com.