Garden gives inmates a reason to care

Published 12:00 am Friday, June 10, 2011

By Katie Scarvey
If you think about a prison meal, fresh squash, tomatoes and cantaloupe are probably not what springs to mind.
At Piedmont Correctional Institution, however, these items make frequent appearances on the summer menu, and that’s thanks to a beautiful garden and the dedication of maintenance staff and a group of trusted inmates of the minimum security unit who plant and tend to it.
If you’ve driven much on U.S. 29 between Salisbury and China Grove in the last dozen years or so, you’ve surely noticed a large, manicured patch of dirt sitting on the edge of the correctional facility, next to a stand of towering loblolly pines.
The garden was begun by Mike Baker, part of the facility’s maintenance staff. He’s been with the prison for 30 years and says he can’t remember exactly when he started the garden. Some people estimate that it was about 15 years ago.
“We had all that ground down there,” Baker said. “I got tired of mowing it.”
That can’t quite be the truth, since the kind of garden Baker was growing involves a great deal of sustained effort.
During the garden’s heyday, it yielded between 6-8 tons of vegetables every year, Baker says. It produced enough food for the entire facility, and often there was enough left over to donate to organizations like Rowan Helping Ministries.
The garden lay fallow last year as the facility was still adjusting to a major reorganization.
This year, maintenance mechanic Kenneth Shepherd has brought the garden back to lush life.
Shepherd supervises a group of inmates who tend the garden and do other work that needs to be done around the aging facility.
The men on his crew have earned the trust of the man they like to call “Pop.”
“All my guys … every one has worked extra hard to earn the trust to come outside the fence,” Shepherd says.
“I show them respect, and I get it back tenfold.”
The inmates work hard to keep the privilege of working with Shepherd.
“These guys don’t want to disappoint him,” says Lt. Thomas Shaver.
Last Thursday, four inmates were tending the garden, hoeing and tilling around the plants — tomatoes, squash, sweet peppers, watermelon, canteloupe and cucumbers.
As the vegetables are harvested, they go straight to the kitchen, Shepherd says, benefitting all the inmates.
And on the evening’s menu? Fresh squash. Not a lot, at this point, but still, enough to look forward to.
The state did not come up with the funding for the garden this year, so Shepherd paid for plants and supplies out of his own pocket.
This fall, he’s hoping to plant turnips, mixed greens, cabbage and lettuce.
“I want to get more prepared for next spring so we can do more next year,” he says.
The men working in the garden are happy to be there.
“It’s my freedom,” says Kyle Suddarth, an inmate from Salisbury. “It’s the best part of my day.”
“I like it,” says Gary Thompson. “It’s better than sitting up there all day,” he says, glancing at the prison.
This is his first real experience gardening, but he says that when he gets out, he might be inspired to start his own.
He likes taking care of the plants. “These are our babies,” he says.
Freddie Lee Allen, at 59 a bit older than his co-workers, has real gardening experience. He grows vegetables at his home in Anson County: collard greens, caggage, okra, tomatoes — “the whole shebang.”
“I’m not new at this,” he says, adding that he helped his parents in their garden when he was a child.
Richard Phillips is thrilled to be acquiring new skills through gardening.
“I love it,” says Phillips, who’s been at the facility for almost two years and has less than a year to serve.
“I’m learning something new. This is my first time ever.
“Seeing stuff grown from your own hands — that’s a blessing.”
Shepherd has taken note that Phillips is an eager learner.
“It makes no difference what I ask that man to do — he knows he’ll learn something. He has a very hungry mind, and he wants to learn.”
Like others who work at the prison, Shepherd wants to do whatever he can to insure that inmates stay out of prison once they’re back in the real world. In his quiet way, he works toward that goal by teaching inmates practical skills, serving as a sounding board and adviser as needed and giving the men in his charge a reason to care about something.
He tells the story of a man who was close to finishing his sentence. Before he left in April, he approached Shepherd.
“I know this is not going to sound right,” he told Shepherd, “but I’m learning so much that I almost wish I had more time.’”
Hearing things like that underscores what Shepherd already knows — that change is possible.
“They’re learning,” he says. “The more they learn, the better chance they have of staying out.”
Captain Steve Foutz believes that cultivating the garden is a positive outlet for inmates.
“Everybody needs a purpose, a point to their life,” he says.
When people are productive, it’s good for the community, even if it’s a cellblock community, he says.
It gives them something to take pride in, something that allows them to say at the end of the day, “I accomplished something.”
“That’s hard to find in prison,” he notes.
“The great idea has always been rehabilitation, but by and large we’re a warehouse. So any time we can give a person a reason to be, to care, to get up in the morning, it’s beneficial to them and to us.”
Taking responsibility for the care of a living thing, he says, whether it’s a person, an animal or even a plant, is important.
Caring for something, he says, leads to caring about and becoming invested in other things, including the community.
As writer Robert Brault put it, “I cultivate my garden, and my garden cultivates me.”
Sometimes, caring about something might be as simple as waiting in anticipation to be able to bite into fruits and vegetables you’ve sweated over.
Phillips is eager for the tomatoes to ripen, since they’re his favorites. Suddarth loves tomatoes and cantaloupes. Allen is particularly looking forward to enjoying cantaloupes and watermelons.
Since the state budget is so tight now, Shepherd acknowledged that he would be happy to receive donations — seeds, plants, fertilizers, insecticides or money for supplies.
“Anything would be welcome,” he says.
For information about how to donate, call Annette Foutz at 704-639-7540.