Parsons, Kansas —
Mathis likened the Master Gardener classes to a college course. He said the inmates learn how to identify good and bad garden insects; create alternatives to garden chemicals; make compost; take soil samples; and even how to use flowers that attract pests and keep them away from the produce.
“A lot of guys here have never had a garden in their life,” Mitchell said. “They’re probably city kids, but they’re going to have something they can do with their kids and their families when they get out of here.”
Barr notes that some inmates may even get a break when it comes time for a parole hearing. The Master Gardener classes are part of the prison’s program to reward inmates for good behavior.
“Idle time in prison is never a good thing,” he said. “This gives them an opportunity to keep themselves focused and plan toward the future.
“In a prison setting, you don’t get a lot of opportunity to show that you can be productive, other than a classroom setting. So when you come out here and look at this garden, it speaks for itself. All the hard work and dedication these guys spend each day in this garden to keep it up, it’s a huge task.”
Inmates typically work 8-10 hours in prison detail or, in some cases, a private industry job. Only after that do they get time to work in the garden.
The first year, before they had some operating funds, the garden work included hand watering every vegetable plant, often lugging five gallon buckets of water as much as a quarter-mile.
“I’m not going to lie,” Mathis remembers, “there were times when I’m thinking to myself, ‘What are you doing?’ You burn up, you’re hot, you’re sweaty…but you start seeing the produce or you taste a tomato or taste an onion. You see Ms. Murdock from the soup kitchen and you see the smile on her face when you take her a 55-gallon trash can of tomatoes and they are happy.
“It makes you feel good about yourself.”
Robbins credits the 30 inmates who currently work in the garden.
“I think the big thing is that everybody comes out and works their tails off and, every man is really sincere about our donations and what we do for the outside,” he said.
“A couple of them have told me that this was the greatest single thing they’ve accomplished in their life. I say it’s my second, because I have a son, and he’s first. But this garden, other than that, might be the single greatest thing I’ve accomplished. And I’m proud of this more than anything else.”
Mathis added, “When I was out on the street, I didn’t do this. It gives me a tool that when I get out, to grow a garden, to help the community, to help the soup kitchen. It’s about me getting better for myself, and getting better for the (community).” £