TYLER — One steamy morning earlier this month, four men in black and white jail uniforms bent over rows of scorched plants, plucking handfuls of tomatoes and gently placing them in five-gallon buckets.
“It’s been a blessing for me,” said Frank Meadows, a 36-year-old linebacker-size man serving time in the Smith County Jail for offenses that include failing to pay child support.
“I’d rather be out here and get to eat some of these tomatoes,” he said, his face glistening with sweat.
The four-acre garden situated behind a concrete plant here is a result of one of several partnerships statewide between food banks and correctional facilities in which inmates tend fields that provide produce to needy families. The gardens are among an increasing number of programs aimed at keeping prisoners occupied while teaching them skills.
“They learn how to do something out here,” said Sheriff Larry Smith of Smith County. “They feel like they’re a part of something.”
Since its creation in 2010, the Smith County Jail’s garden has produced more than 150,000 pounds of produce for the East Texas Food Bank — nearly enough to fill four 18-wheeler trucks. The project was the brainchild of former Sheriff J. B. Smith, who started the garden with the help of Judge Sam Griffith of the Court of Appeals for the 12th District and a former Smith County agriculture extension agent.
“Matthew 25 says you’re supposed to feed the hungry,” Griffith said. “We took him serious about it.”
Most days, about four inmates are transported by van the 11 miles from the jail to help tend the garden, which this summer is lined with tomatoes, corn, squash and peas. As many as 12 inmates help during busy harvest times, Smith said. A sheriff’s deputy is always on duty, watching over the inmate gardeners. Only those with good behavior can tend the garden. The chance to work outdoors is an incentive for inmates to stay on the straight and narrow, he said.
Inmates who tend the garden also earn “good time” — they get three days’ credit on their sentence for each day of work. That means less time behind bars, which saves taxpayers money on food and shelter, Smith said.
For the food bank and its clients, the garden means fresh local produce at little cost, since the garden land was donated. Since it began, the garden has provided 125,000 meals to needy families in 26 East Texas counties.
“I love the connection to the sheriff’s department and being able to give these guys an opportunity to get out and work with their hands,” said Dennis Cullinane, the food bank’s executive director. “Anything we can do to help break the cycle of poverty.”
Cullinane said he was looking to expand the program to perhaps include hens to produce eggs.
Across the state, there are 12 food banks working in partnership with local correctional facilities, said Celia Cole, chief executive of the Texas Food Bank Network.
“Our food banks give back to that population with job skills when they’re looking to get back on their feet,” Cole said.
Gardens are not the only program that jails in Texas have instituted to make good use of inmates’ time. In Harris County, prisoners can take vocational classes taught by Houston Community College staff members. Low-risk offenders there can take classes in welding, auto repair, carpentry, food preparation, leather working and other skills. The sprawling Houston jail also has a “clean and green” program, in which inmates help remove graffiti, plant trees and clear brush from the bayou behind their temporary home.
For inmates, the chance to work is important, said Diana Claitor, co-founder and director of the Texas Jail Project. “It’s a whole lot better than sitting in one place and having to count the minutes go by,” she said.
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