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Monday, Aug. 29, 2016

Garden benefits both prisoners, residents

Sunday, October 3, 2004

Scottie Presson waters produce planted in one of 12 plots while Kenneth Karrenbrack hoes around the plants.
CHARLESTON -- Scottie Presson would be lost without his job.

With three years left to serve in his sentence, the low-level offender admits he doesn't know what he would do if he couldn't be working in the garden located on the grounds of the Southeast Correctional Center in Charleston.

"It keeps me busy and helps keep my mind off things," said Presson, who's been working in the garden Monday through Friday for the past four months.

But the giant garden maintained by offenders at the Southeast Correctional Center isn't only therapeutic for them, residents throughout Southeast Missouri also benefit from the garden as recipients of the fresh produce.

As part of its Restorative Justice Program, the Southeast Correctional Center has an agreement with the Bootheel Food Bank in Sikeston, which serves 16 counties, and Ministerial Alliance in Charleston.

"Basically how it works is the food bank provides us with the seeds, and we plant the seeds, harvest them and give them back to the organizations," explained Troy McCullough, the institution's activity coordinator.

In only its second year, the prison garden has gone from two plots to 12, which are 50-by-100-foot, and from producing 10,000 pounds of vegetables a year to nearly 24,500 pounds -- and counting -- as of Sept. 15.

In July alone, the offenders harvested 12,000 pounds of vegetables and have picked as much as 2,000 pounds in a given day.

It's something positive that goes on in the institution, plant maintenance engineer Steve Henson pointed out. Generally prisons have a negative connotation with them, but this is something positive, he said.

Only four or five correctional institutions across the state have a garden like Southeast's, Henson pointed out.

"Most of the guys like to go outside. It's just an outlet for them to get outside of the institution," McCullough said.

From March through November, approximately 75 offenders take turns working in the garden that produces turnips, squash, lettuce, beets, onions, cucumbers, cabbage, okra, tomatoes, corn, carrots, watermelon, cantaloupe, green beans, purple peas, sweet potatoes and pumpkins.

"The whole garden is based on restorative justice and giving back to the community," McCullough said. "And we get none of the food and it costs the taxpayers nothing."

Larry Frazier, maintenance supervisor of the garden, said the offenders harvest the garden twice a week, average six to eight workers a day in six-hour shifts -- which, of course, vary with each season, Frazier pointed out.

"Anyone who knows anything about gardening, knows when you've got the right temperature and moisture, there's always something to do in the garden," Frazier said. The garden is tended to by lower level offenders with less than 60 months of their sentence left to serve.

"Some are local some are from other parts of the states. And some have worked in a garden before and some didn't," Henson said.

None of those who work in the garden are violent or sex crime offenders, and the criteria is tight for those who can participate, assured Randy Wright, corrections case worker. Sometimes inmates can have an attitude problem, but for the most part there aren't any problems, Henson said.

"These inmates are ready to go home and don't want to get in trouble, and they don't pose a threat to the community," Henson explained.

Another incentive for good behavior is the parole boards look at an offender's participation in restorative justice, Henson pointed out.

A typical day begins around 8 a.m. and around 10:30 a.m., the offenders must check in to the housing unit for a count. Then they go back out to work from 11:45 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. Offenders use a tractor, disk and plow to work up the ground. Offenders perform several jobs ranging from planting, watering, picking weeds and harvesting.

Gardening equipment like watering devices and potato forks are purchased through Southeast's Restorative Justice Organization's funds.

Although the garden is a team effort, it's Frazier who is the real force behind the garden, Wright said. "We all have worked together, but Larry is No. 1 as far as getting the job done," Wright said. "He works right along side the offenders every day."

A large degree of offenders take pride in their work, Wright said

"We had one guy who had a chance to move to a different program and make more money, but he chose to stay at the garden because he liked it so much," Wright recalled.

Working in the prison garden could ultimately provide jobs for some offenders upon their release, McCullough said. Offenders could easily get involved in vegetable production, he said.

Presson said he knows it's a privilege working outside and doing a job he loves.

"If I wasn't out here, I'd be sitting in another building," Presson said. "It' keeps me going and gives me a reason to get up in the morning -- plus, it all goes to a good cause."