As corrections officer Cheryl Reeder and an inmate trustee watch at left, Texas County Master Gardeners work on the high tunnel greenhouse that houses the Texas County Jail garden. Atop the ladder is Jerry Swink and on the ground are Ron Ice and Doris Altom.

Texas County Sheriff Scott Lindsey, center, stands inside the jail garden with jail administrator Tim Garnica, right, and assistant administrator Andy Edwards.

Thanks to a joint effort between the Texas County Sheriff’s Department and the University of Missouri Texas County Extension, the jail garden inside a high tunnel greenhouse behind the justice center is once again producing. After being abandoned for a couple of years, the jail garden project was resurrected in June of this year by Sheriff Scott Lindsey and jail administrator Tim Garnica.

“In my mind, there are two goals for the garden,” Lindsey said. “One is, if we can generate a little food and save that out of our budget, that’s great. And secondly, it gives inmates the opportunity to get out and do something productive and have a chance to learn some skills they might use in their lives.”

By request of the county commission, MU Extension agriculture educator Eric Meusch and nutrition and health education specialist Brandi Richardson were both integral in the re-launch of the garden. Meusch offered introductory training on the importance of soil sampling, and Richardson developed a plan for Extension educators and specialists to deliver weekly garden and nutrition classes to trustees.

Attendees of the six sessions were selected by Lindsey and Garnica, and instructed about skills and resources necessary to create a successful garden. 

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“Some of them ended up working in the garden,” Lindsey said, “and some of them will hopefully use the skills they learned when they’re not incarcerated.”

Meusch and Richardson were also involved in the initial cleaning up of the neglected space inside the greenhouse.

“This is a very positive reinforcement program for the inmates,” Garnica said. “They look forward to coming out here, and they do it with ease and pride.”

“This is a fairly unique project,” Meusch said. “It brings the constructive activity and fresh food from gardening together with an institution that you don’t usually think about when you think of gardening. In general, I think it’s a great way to give inmates something positive to do while they are in jail, as well as build a skill set they can use when they get out. All of the inmates I met were happy to be able to get involved. Of course, the jail has to screen and select the inmates who participate, but for the right people it’s a great activity.”

The Texas County Master Gardeners had a work day at the garden, and helped install the shade cloth on the high tunnel. They also facilitated donations of seeds and mulch for use in the facility.

As corrections officer Cheryl Reeder and an inmate trustee watch at left, Texas County Master Gardeners work on the high tunnel greenhouse that houses the Texas County Jail garden. Atop the ladder is Jerry Swink and on the ground are Ron Ice and Doris Altom.

“The Master Gardeners have a long history of working with the high tunnel at the jail and have been involved since its establishment,” Meusch said. “Although they weren’t directly involved with the recent training activities, they retain a lot of the historical context and knowledge about the high tunnel.”  

The jail garden began in 2012 as a fully outdoor operation, and moved indoors in late 2014 when a 72 by 30-foot high tunnel greenhouse was purchased through a USDA Rural Development $7,500 grant obtained by Downtown Houston Inc.

Production increased dramatically after the greenhouse was added. Now, numerous varieties of crops are thriving inside it, including broccoli, cabbage, eggplant, green beans, peppers, zucchini squash, basil and several types of tomatoes. Since the first harvest in mid-summer, the garden has yielded hundreds of pounds of food.

“It will help on our food budget,” Garnica said. “Not astronomically, but it’s helping lower our costs on fresh produce.”

Jail kitchen staff use produce from the garden to make salads and sauces, and to accent a variety of dishes. Some of the yield is even pickled, and plans are in place to start a canning program so some of the garden’s bounty is available for use during cold months.

Assistant jail administrator Andy Edwards said the garden’s yield has a positive effect on inmates.

“It really helps boost morale when they get fresh produce once in a while,” Edwards said, “rather than things always coming in processed from a factory somewhere.”

All food at the jail is now made on site, and ingredients are purchased from SGC Foodservice in Springfield. Lindsey said the jail’s food program is on pace to finish 2019 at 30-percent under budget.

While inmates have done most of the work in the garden since it was resurrected, Lindsey said people performing community service or volunteers from the public sector would be welcome to get involved.

“We really can’t rely on just inmates,” he said. “We need to expand our labor pool a bit. I would really like to see faith-based groups and other organizations and individuals get involved.”

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Garnica has extensive experience as a jail administrator at much larger facilities on the West Coast. He said he hasn’t seen anything like the jail garden before.

Doug Davison is a writer, photographer and newsroom assistant for the Houston Herald. Email him at ddavison@houstonherald.com.

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